Politics in Russia

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based writer, academic, and democratic socialist
political activist. He was a leader of the Party of Labor, which was outlawed
by Boris Yeltsin in the aftermath of the 1993 “presidential coup” that
resulted in the destruction of parliament. Since then he has served as
an advisor to various trade unions and youth groups. He is the author of
Recasting Marxism: New Realism, New Barbarism.

JIM SMITH: Politics in Russia seem to be very complicated these days. Is
that your sense?

BORIS KAGARLITSKY: The political situation in Russia is becoming very simple
in the sense that we’re moving very fast towards some kind of new dictatorship.

Who’s going to lead it?

There is a kind of hidden consensus among the elite and, unfortunately,
among the population that democracy will not survive. It’s also important
to say that today there’s no democracy. Russia is a very peculiar system.
On the one hand we have all the characteristics of democracy. We have elections,
we have the parliament, we have political parties, and we have a free press.
At the same time, everyone knows that the decision-making process is completely
authoritarian. So all these democratic mechanisms have very little to do
with the real decision making. Everyone knows that election fraud is becoming
an increasing part of the political process. You have elections but the
outcome doesn’t depend on voters, it depends on the local power structure,
the casiques. In Russia we started using that term Casique after the local
strongmen, the local political powers in Mexico.

Will the presidential elections be held?

Theoretically we’ll have presidential elections. My prediction is that
we probably won’t have presidential elections. The problem the leading
elite has now is that they cannot keep things under control. This is the
regime that has had power since the coup in 1993 up through the August
1998 crash of the ruble. This regime cannot survive for long because its
economic and also its social base has eroded. That makes everyone certain
that there will be a transition to something different. The question is,
a transition to what?

The Russian oligarchy has created a system that is completely unproductive.
It is consuming the resources of the country, including human resources,
rather than reproducing the economy. As a result, the economy is shrinking.
This means that there are less and less resources for the oligarchy. This
increases the competition among different groups in the oligarchy for resources.
After the ruble’s crash in 1998, everyone understood that we had too many
oligarchs. So for one group of oligarchs to survive, they must expropriate
the other group of oligarchs. We are approaching the stage when expropriation
becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, it’s not the proletariat that’s going
to expropriate the capitalists, but one group of capitalists that will
expropriate the other group of capitalists.

Another factor is that for the first time since 1989, the economy is growing.
It’s growing to such an extent that in the United States, they are now
taking protectionist measures against Russian imports like steel. It is
interesting that the American government teaches everyone about free trade
but it’s one of the most protectionist markets, particularly against the
third world and eastern Europe.

But today the economy is growing because the ruble collapsed and the price
of labor is so cheap that the products become incredibly cheap. In the
steel industry, a Russian worker will earn $500 a month, while an American
worker might earn up to $5,000. The skills and education of the Russian
would be the same as the American. But the Russian is working for third-world
wages. Some would say that’s not a fair competition but what is unfair
is the small wage caused by the collapse of the domestic market in Russia.
That’s why the Russian industry is so aggressively exporting.

This economic situation has created a crisis among the elite. There is
growth with nearly zero investment. In recent years, in most industries
production slowed down, but the capacity was still there. When the economy
started growing, they started expanding production without new investment
by recovering the old equipment. But this kind of expansion is very limited.
For example, the equipment is falling apart. To produce quality products,
you have to invest in new equipment. In Russia, there is a labor force,
a market, everything is very cheap but there is no new equipment. The oligarchs
do not want to invest. There is no structure for investment. There is no
investment research, strategy, decision-making bodies. So their money is
not used for capital. The money is used for buying real estate in the Bahamas.
It will bring money back to them and it is safe. It’s rational for them
to export capital rather than invest in Russia. At the same time, the oligarchs
want the economy to expand so it will bring them more money. This is the
contradiction. They don’t want to invest but they want economic growth.
They want the state to invest for them. And they want to take the profits
away. You privatize the profits and socialize the losses. The kind of state
we have in Russia accepts this idea. But the state doesn’t have the money.
This increases the pressure from the oligarchs to have the state expropriate
the wealth of the other groups of oligarchs.

Would the wealth of the expropriated oligarchs then become state property?

Not necessarily. The state is in debt as are the oligarchs. The money could
be used to write off some of the debt or they could be forced to invest
in state projects or state banks. This is what they have done already to
ordinary people. Now they are going to do it to each other.

At least one-third of the population votes for the left and another third
is center-left. It would seem to be an incredible prospect for the left.
In reality it’s not. First of all, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist party leadership
is shifting from left-wing positions to nationalist, nostalgic, Czarist,
even anti-Semitic positions. The party is hijacked from its members by
the leadership. In a certain sense it’s a very Stalinist way of doing things.
The Stalinist method of organization enables the leadership to be almost
completely independent from the mass of the members, with the members being
passive and accepting almost anything the leadership does. However, in
the past, the leadership had to accept continuity with the revolutionary
tradition. While today the leadership of Zyuganov has broken with that
tradition. With Zyuganov, there is a dramatic shift to the reactionary
component of Stalinism with the elimination of everything Marxist or Leninist
in the tradition. It’s Stalinism purified from Leninism.

Is the Party leadership united on this?

The leadership is united, but the party is not. Because of this, they have
had to systematically purge all the elements in the party not acceptable
to the leadership. People of all different types and currents have been
purged. Left-liberal types like Boris Slavin are out. Social democratic
types like Vladimir Semago have been expelled. Even traditional Stalinists
like Richard Kosolapov also have been expelled. Alexey Podberiozkin who
was not even a party member, but a Zyuganovite is ostracized. The entire
youth communist league, the Komsomol, led by Igor Maligrov was expelled.
It had 30,000 members. They formed a new pro-Zyuganov youth alliance. It’s
not even a problem of right or left. If you have any independent thoughts,
you’re out. This has created an intellectual crisis in the party.

The party faction in the Duma is becoming increasingly corrupt. This has
to do with the nature of Russian politics. In the Duma, it’s the norm for
the majority of deputies to take money for every important vote. So for
example, if there is legislation on advertising, the lobbyists come and
bribe the deputies. They call it lobbying, but it’s really bribery. It’s
much worse than in America where they make contributions. In Russia they
don’t make contributions, they just give you money for a vote: from $1,000
up to $30,000 for a single vote.

The Duma is full of these people so it’s very tempting to the deputies.
Not every single deputy takes bribes but it is a normal practice. It’s
not even denounced by the Communist Party leadership. There is no attempt
by the leadership to fight against it. On the contrary, it’s seen as one
of the main advantages of being in the Duma. The Party gains, in a more
subtle way, from getting money for their needs from different interest
groups: in a more American style, such as contributions. It’s kept secret
how many contributors there are. The Party leaders control that money.
This creates a situation where they are politically and morally unable
to keep their party members from becoming corrupt. Russia is a very poor
country nowadays. Going into the parliament is a good way of becoming rich.
These are people of lower middle class backgrounds who cannot join the
right wing parties since they are only for the rich, so they join the left
to become upwardly mobile.

This is very discouraging.

It’s incredibly discouraging. There are two reasons why the movement is
so weak at the grassroots level. The society has been through incredible
turmoil and disorganization. People are unable to come together because
they can’t even formulate their collective interests. Imagine, there are
people who work half-time as industrial workers and half-time as peddlers
or they are engaged in buying and selling. If you produce china, you don’t
get paid a wage, you get paid in china, which then you have to go out and
sell or exchange. After all this you don’t know if you’re a proletarian
or a petty bourgeois merchant or even a peasant since you have to grow
your potatoes and your orchard. So it’s very hard to formulate your own

The second problem is that the economy has been in decline for nine years
with constantly growing unemployment. From your own history, you know that
the labor movement is usually stronger when the economy is on the rise.
When the economy is declining, workers are afraid to lose their jobs and
feel totally dependent on the administration of the enterprise. Since the
Soviet times, enterprises have been industrial communities where the workers
were dependent not just for their wages but for their housing, holidays,
health care, and other things. This dependence on the enterprise management
contributes to the weakness of the mass movement.

This year, for the first time, the economy grew. To give workers more confidence,
we need at least two or three years of minimum economic growth at 2 or
3 percent. This is not much considering that we have lost about half of
our economy. At this rate, it would take about 30 years to regain our earlier
economic size. This small amount of growth is no solution to the problems
of the country. But it is socially important because it can give a boost
to the labor movement.

Union leadership today is also very corrupt. The old Teamsters union would
be an accurate comparison for Russian unions today. But this corruption
is not challenged from the bottom because the unions are weak at the grassroots.
When they get stronger, they’ll change the leadership.

If the economic growth continues it will present new possibilities for
the left. But a second factor is the elections. If they take place, the
Communist Party will face electoral disaster. Not because people won’t
vote for them. The problem is that this time the electoral system will
work against the Communist Party to the same extent that it worked in their
favor in the first election. This time, the parties that get more than
5 percent of the vote, which qualifies them to get into the Parliament,
will win around 75 percent of the vote, not 50 percent. Therefore, the
Communist Party with the same vote will get less seats. To make things
worse, it’s not going to be the biggest party this time. So the Communist
Party will benefit less than any other party. The other parties tend to
make alliances against the Communist Party. Local governors already are
forming these alliances and they are selecting who is going to win. Most
governors are not Communists. As a result, the Communist Party will face
an electoral disaster. I don’t know what they are going to do with that.
They’ve failed to create a system of alliances to broaden their appeal.
On the contrary, they have alienated more people.

So the question is what is going to happen after the elections, if they
take place. If there are elections, there will be a huge crisis inside
the Communist Party after they are over. I do not exclude that there will
be an attempt to remove Zyuganov from the leadership. I think that it would
fail. Some people may leave and try to form a new broader left wing party,
more or less based on the German PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) model.
Maybe it would be a little more social democratic. But you cannot have
a social democratic party in Russia. The conditions will not allow it.
Either you have to be more radical or you have to be just a liberal. Even
in Europe it’s getting harder to be a Social Democrat. In any case, there
will be a chance for the creation of a new party. I don’t know if it will
actually happen. Having faced many political defeats myself, I want to
be careful about being too optimistic.

The other possibility is that there would be a coup d’etat. Everything
will change if there is a dictatorship. To be honest, I don’t think it
would be that bad if this pseudo democracy was thrown out. It is so fake
and so demoralizing and so corrupt that we wouldn’t be losing much. At
the same time, this would create a possibility for creating a new democratic
movement formed by the left. Even if we have a dictatorship, I don’t think
it will be that cruel.

Don’t you think political parties would be outlawed?

No, I don’t think it would be like Chile or Argentina. I think the dictatorship
would be weak. They don’t have the capacity to impose a strong dictatorship.
But the question will become how to resist this dictatorship. If left politics
have to be based on resisting rather than using the parliament, then you
have different sorts of people and a different type of organization. That
will bring in new people.

What effect is the aggressiveness of NATO having on political thought in

First of all, Russia has become incredibly anti-American. The “anti-Yankee”
attitude is dominant. Even the Right doesn’t dare to be openly pro-American
because there is such a strong popular hostility to U.S. hegemonistic policies.
It’s across the political spectrum.

Also, we have a new generation in Russia. That is the generation that the
liberals expected to be theirs. But the new generation rejects neoliberalism
completely. First of all, it’s extremely anti-American. These are teenagers
who drink Coca-Cola, wear American jeans, listen to rock music, and speak
English. They are computer freaks. They are very much like their American
counterparts, so you imagine they are going to be pro-western. Not at all.
They take for granted that there are bananas in the shops and coke to drink.
It doesn’t have any political meaning. For my generation, drinking coke
or wearing jeans was a political statement, but not now.

During the Kosovo crisis, it shocked the Americans that the crowds rushing
their Embassy and throwing stones and bottles were teenagers, not old Communists.
And they were mainly middle-class teenagers. Moscow is a relatively rich
city. The whole country is ruined, but there is wealth in Moscow. It’s
the only place in the country that has such a big middle class. During
the bombing, I saw crowds of well dressed middle-class teenagers coming
to the American Embassy shouting anti-American slogans. They were not shouting
nationalist, or “Slavic brotherhood” slogans. They were anti-Imperialist
and anti-IMF slogans. They carried solidarity posters with China when the
Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed.

During the Kosovo war, Russian hackers conducted an attack on Pentagon
Internet sites and computers. This was recognized by the Pentagon as a
serious threat. They managed to block the White House website for half
an hour. (Ed. Note: The massive Russian hacker assault was called “moonlight
maze” by the U.S. security agencies and is still being investigated.) They
replaced the American flag on the site with a Jolly Roger. These hacker
communities are decentralized and, at the same time, very coordinated.
After the war, the pirates who dominate the software market in Russia issued
a CD-Rom entitled “Anti-NATO.” The CD was filled with hacker software that
you can use for your own private attack on U.S. government sites. It was
a big hit.

What do young people think about the fall of the Soviet Union?

Well, middle class youth know there were a lot of bad things about the
Soviet Union so they are mainly anarchist and anti-capitalist but also
anti-communist. On the other hand, working class kids mythologize the Soviet
Union. They think it was a great country that we lost. So they are more
pro Soviet. But both groups are anti-capitalist. Not all, but most. There
is a constituency for progressive politics among the youth. Again, I don’t
want to be overly optimistic. Most of the kids are apolitical at the same
time they are anti-capitalist and anti-American. Often their anti-communism
is directed not against communist ideology but against the Communist Party
of Zyuganov.

What’s your view of the major reasons why the Soviet Union fell?

Well, because the Stalinist system exhausted itself. My point of view is
that there were two decisive movements. One was in 1968, when they crushed
the Prague Spring which meant that they didn’t want any change or democratic
reform. The bureaucracy wanted to keep the system as is. The system was
already exhausted. It had been a great success in terms of modernizing
and industrializing the country and educating the people. But then the
question was whether it was capable of continuing to manage the country
with the same methods that had modernized it. It is one thing to be able
to build factories and quite another to coordinate the production of thousands
of products from hundreds of factories. All the centrist methods that worked
in the 1930s and 1940s failed in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s why some sort
of democratic change was absolutely necessary, not just from the humanist
view. From the humanistic and moral point of view it was always necessary.
From the managerial and technical point of view it was also necessary at
this point. When they crushed the Prague Spring, it became clear that the
political choice had been made to conserve the system as it used to be.

The second turning point was in 1973 when the oil shortage happened in
the west. That provided the system with additional resources to consolidate
itself on a conservative basis. By selling oil to the west, they started
getting petrodollars in huge numbers, which compensated for the inefficiency
of the system. That led to several consequences. The gap between what was
needed and what was actually done was increasing, that is, the contradictions
were increasing.

The second consequence was the Soviet Union became integrated into the
capitalist world system as a supplier of raw materials. Eastern Europe
began getting financial credits from the west which were guaranteed through
Russian oil. So the Soviet Union became peripheralized through the structure
of world trade and through debt. This caused growing corruption, not only
in the bureaucracy but in the population, which was corrupted by the type
of social contract provided by Brezhnev to the people of the Soviet Union:
“If you shut up, don’t ask for more rights and accept the rule of the bureaucracy
then we will supply you with consumer goods.” That is why the population
was so weak in resisting the liberalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
All this happened from 1968-1973. In that sense, in 1989-1991, we had no
choice in going the way we went. Of course, the left fought against it
and we had a lot of illusions about being able to achieve some sort of
self-management socialism. When we look back after ten years, we see that
the balance of forces was such that we didn’t have a chance. The bureaucracy
was already oriented to integration with the west. We got the restoration
of capitalism, dependence on the west and this old Russian state. So that
is our return into the “world civilization” as they call it. We return,
but as servants.

Are there any other formations on the left in Russia that show promise?

Well, there are lots of formations but the only serious one is the Communist
Party of the Russian Federation. You have plenty of groups but they have
little impact. If we have a transformation of the political landscape,
then some of these groups can become important. They can provide cadre
and experience, but only if there is a transformation.

In Russia, we have intellectual groups, left social democratic currents,
and the Komsomol, which is still a big formation with about 15,000 members.
There are also some very active Trotskyists. But all these groups are not
strong enough to present a nationwide political force.

What do you see as good left-wing political models around the world?

PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) in Germany and the Refoundation Communist
Party in Italy are two. PDS is very well organized and is strong intellectually.
Some in Germany complain that the intellectual debate in PDS is low, but
that is only according to German standards. If you are in a country that
produced Hegel, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, you can look at PDS and say it has
a low level of debate. But if you look at the rest of central and eastern
Europe or even France, the level of debate is much higher in PDS.

France has become an intellectual desert. In Russia, we have a level of
intellectual debate that is very high today, but it is disconnected from
politics. If it were my choice, I would prefer the German model. I don’t
think that having sophisticated intellectual debates is as important as
having more lively politics.

The Refoundation Party is not comparable to PDS in terms of success and
forming an organization that will reproduce itself. They are still struggling
to survive and form their own organizational and political model. In contrast,
the PDS is a party with its own culture and tradition. You can be very
critical of PDS by the way. I think they are becoming more social democratic.
Their success in the east is causing them to move more to the right to
fill the void left by the social democrats who have moved so far right
as to be irrelevant. You cannot be a Tony Blair in eastern Germany, as
you can in west Germany. The space for traditional social democracy became
empty, and PDS is moving into it. They are the only real social democracy
in town. They are being criticized for this by those on their left. But
PDS and Refoundation are part of the same current.

Another example is the Workers Party (PT) of Brazil. Once again, we shouldn’t
be too idealistic about PT. In the last ten years they have developed their
own reformists, yuppies, and post-modernists. Still it is a good example
of a party that is a success. In Japan, the Communist Party is recovering
in terms of circulation of their newspaper, in intellectual terms, and
in relations with the trade unions. The Socialist Party went so far to
the right that the Communist Party is picking up some of the space left
by it. It doesn’t mean that the left is stronger, because in Japan they
had a very radical Socialist Party.

In France, the Communist Party is not doing really well, but the Trotskyists
are. There are five Trotskyists in the European Parliament. Two Trotskyists
groups have come together and managed to have a stable coalition. They’ve
also managed to have good relations with the Communist Party. In France,
they have a coalition, which is dominated organizationally by the old Communist
Party and intellectually by the Trotskyists. They all cooperate very closely.
So in a certain sense, the old debate, the old division is over. The left
has to be reshaped so that people overcome old divisions.

What does your political work consist of today?

I do some educational work with Komsomol, the youth Communist league. I
write for a quarterly journal, Alternatives, produced by Alexandr Buzgalin,
who is the leading Marxist economist in Russia today. Fortunately he’s
not the only one. Courses in Marxism are now returning to Russian universities.
I teach Marxism at the Moscow School for Social Sciences. Buzgalin’s journal
is an attempt to bring together different currents on the left.

From 1993 to 1998 was the worst period for the left in Russia. There was
no chance for an organized left outside the Communist Party and the Party
didn’t want us. People like Buzgalin and me were ready to work with the
Communist Party. Komsomol wanted to work with us. Academic work is not
just academic. It should be used to help form young cadre for the movement.

You have a new book coming out?

It just came out in London last week. They are publishing three books.
One at a time but they are really three parts of the same book. It’s called
Recasting Marxism. Part One, which is already out, is called New Realism,
New Barbarism.
It is based on an old Rosa Luxemburg phase, “Socialism or
Barbarism.” Now socialism has been defeated and barbarism is triumphant.
I wanted to write a political study of this triumphant barbarism and how
it is reflected within the left. There is a lot of barbarization of the
left. For example, post modernism is a sophisticated form of barbarism.
It is anti-universalist, anti-Marxist, and anti-enlightenment. The book
is about the western left, not Russia. It’s a critique of some sections
of the left, including post modernism and the social democratic right,
the Blairist right. We have to make the distinction that Blair and others
are not left anymore. The division is not whether you’re reformist or radical.
It’s whether you are left or ex-left. This is a historic divide, like in

The NATO bombing helped make that distinction clear.

Yes. I was very disappointed when Bernie Sanders supported the bombing.
Also the Democratic Socialists of America supported it. It was “human rights
imperialism.” But I don’t think it’s very human to bomb people.

Jim Smith is a union activist and writer in Los Angeles.