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Why Russian Liberalism Has to Change

Imperialist sentiments are powerful even among the educated elite.

By , a British freelance writer on politics and culture in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Russian paratroopers perform in Moscow's Red Square
Russian paratroopers perform in Moscow's Red Square
Russian paratroopers perform during an international military music festival at Red Square in Moscow on Aug. 26. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

The Higher School of Economics (HSE) is one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. While a state-funded institution, it had been known since its founding in 1992 as an island of political liberalism in an increasingly authoritarian country. Since Feb. 24 and the invasion of Ukraine, it has been rapidly squandering this reputation. In March, HSE rector Nikita Anisimov signed an open letter alongside more than 300 fellow university leaders that argued universities should support the Russian state in its attack on Ukraine. Later that month, students were officially warned against participating in anti-war protests. And, most recently, HSE promised in June to allocate 10 percent of state-funded places at the university to children of soldiers participating in Russia’s invasion.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little choice. Severe consequences await those who speak out against the so-called special operation in Ukraine. In March, Russia enacted two laws criminalizing independent war reporting and anti-war protests, with penalties of as much as 15 years of jailtime. The State Duma later “ adopted amendments effectively expanding the ban on criticizing the armed forces to banning criticism of all Russian government actions abroad,” according to Human Rights Watch.

And yet, HSE’s descent into jingoism speaks to the inherent limits of Russian liberalism. HSE was the first university to be newly established in post-Soviet Russia, a symbol of the brief window of hope for the democratic transition that Western powers assumed would come. Founder Yaroslav Kuzminov—initiator of the Bologna Process that aligned Russian education systems with those across Europe—sent future HSE professors to France and the Netherlands to learn Western pedagogical methods.

The Higher School of Economics (HSE) is one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. While a state-funded institution, it had been known since its founding in 1992 as an island of political liberalism in an increasingly authoritarian country. Since Feb. 24 and the invasion of Ukraine, it has been rapidly squandering this reputation. In March, HSE rector Nikita Anisimov signed an open letter alongside more than 300 fellow university leaders that argued universities should support the Russian state in its attack on Ukraine. Later that month, students were officially warned against participating in anti-war protests. And, most recently, HSE promised in June to allocate 10 percent of state-funded places at the university to children of soldiers participating in Russia’s invasion.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little choice. Severe consequences await those who speak out against the so-called special operation in Ukraine. In March, Russia enacted two laws criminalizing independent war reporting and anti-war protests, with penalties of as much as 15 years of jailtime. The State Duma later “ adopted amendments effectively expanding the ban on criticizing the armed forces to banning criticism of all Russian government actions abroad,” according to Human Rights Watch.

And yet, HSE’s descent into jingoism speaks to the inherent limits of Russian liberalism. HSE was the first university to be newly established in post-Soviet Russia, a symbol of the brief window of hope for the democratic transition that Western powers assumed would come. Founder Yaroslav Kuzminov—initiator of the Bologna Process that aligned Russian education systems with those across Europe—sent future HSE professors to France and the Netherlands to learn Western pedagogical methods.

Since then, it has ranked among Russia’s top universities and has sought to rise in international rankings, moving from the top 500 to the top 300 between 2012 and 2021 in the QS World University Rankings. Just last year, it tied for 24th place in Times Higher Education’s ranking of universities in emerging economies. Highly qualified faculty, rigorous entry requirements, and a focus on research were among the pillars of its success. The founding of the independent news site in 2017 by some of its students exemplifies the space HSE once allowed for political free thinking. Nonetheless, the seeds of the university’s later decline existed right from the start. Signed into being by Yegor Gaidar, a leading economic reformer in Yeltsin’s government, HSE has existed under the auspices of the state, a fact that Putin’s regime later exploited. While insisting upon academic freedom and HSE’s independence from politics, Kuzminov, HSE’s rector from its founding until 2021, also had to make concessions—such as joining the pro-Kremlin All-Russia People’s Front—to ensure the continued existence of his brainchild.

I attended HSE as a master’s student in 2018-2019, when, on the one hand, it was possible to criticize Putin and his cronies in class without facing any censure. I received no push back when I declared that I wanted my thesis to be about anti-regime protests since 2008.

And yet the U.S.-Russia relations course I took was a master class in Putin- era narratives. In the telling of the professor, senior international affairs lecturer Dmitry Suslov, the West—specifically the United States—betrayed Russia when it expanded NATO, and Moscow’s earnest attempts at respectful and equal engagement were persistently dismissed by the Cold War’s self-proclaimed victors.

Suslov is now a talking head on Russian state TV, hosting a political talk show on Channel One—the Kremlin’s flagship propaganda channel. “Russia has made clear that it is willing to negotiate a peace,” he told viewers the day the invasion began. “Today President Biden categorically rejected these demands for security guarantees, called them fakes, and claimed that Russia is aiming to reestablish the Soviet Union. … the United States will no doubt seek to mobilize the international community against Russia, but are they capable of mobilizing people against anyone but themselves?” Here was the same narrative we had heard in class: Russia is being victimized by the United States, whose hegemonic arrogance prevents any concession to the former’s eminently reasonable demands.

Of course, Suslov is just one man, and he was never a political dissident. But his presence at HSE is emblematic of the uncomfortable affinity between Russian liberalism and Kremlin imperialism, underscoring the former’s limits as a politically transformative force. Just as HSE’s decline is the result of the structures and principles on which it was founded, so too are the limitations of Russian liberalism—now brought into painfully sharp relief by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a result of assumptions that have been inherent to this intellectual and political trend for the past 200 years. As authors like Susanna Rabow-Edling have argued, liberalism in the Russian Empire was deeply intertwined with nationalism and the imperial project, with proponents of the movement believing that liberalizing the empire was the only way to preserve its existence. In this sense, it was not dissimilar to liberalism in other colonial metropoles that posited Western Europe as the epitome of modernity and its imperial possessions as passive recipients of its supposedly progressive policy.

Pre-1905, the dominant liberal movements generally “took a paternalistic or imperialist view of non-Russian national groups,” according to Rabow-Edling. The same went for prominent figures of the late Soviet intelligentsia. The poet Joseph Brodsky—exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972 for failing to conform to the Kremlin’s expectations in his work—is a notable example. In his poem—never published, but which he read at a public event—titled “On Ukrainian Independence,” he uses the slur khokhly to refer to Ukrainians, and he concludes by claiming that they will end up wishing they had never split from Russia: “when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards, / You’ll whisper and wheeze, your deathbed mattress a-pushing, / Not Shevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushkin.”

In a series of articles for Open Democracy, historian Kirill Kobrin wrote that, at the same time as believing in the need to restore “great Russian culture” this group also believed that only the “civilised” West—“where everything was much better than in the Soviet Union”—could facilitate this revival. This condescending attitude toward Ukrainians, national minorities, and the peoples outside of Russia who were once part of its empire continues into much of modern Russian liberalism.

Back in February 2014—when the embers of the Maidan were still smoldering in Kyiv, Ukraine—five authors, three of whom were lecturers or research fellows at HSE, published a report titled “National Identity and the Future of Russia” that was riddled with sweeping generalizations and cliches about the “Russian character.” “In Russia, the historically dominant culture has been the Russian culture,” they wrote. “Russia has its minorities and they will always be there, but the trauma of the 20th century, with its criminal policy with regard to other ethnic groups … must not be carried over into the 21st century. The Russian national identity must be built based on the principle of common cultural space with bright ethnic additions that serve to enrich the main culture.” In the report’s desire to avoid talking about the past and its notion that non-ethnic Russians exist simply as adornments for this “historically dominant” culture, a sweeping colonialist inheritance was still clear.

I ran into those limits in my own work. I had originally intended to research the links between civil society groups in Ukraine and Russia, as well as to analyze the impact of the Revolution of Dignity on the former. In a colorfully worded email, the program coordinator made his derogatory attitudes toward Ukraine clear, suggesting that Ukraine had done nothing other than tear itself apart.

Russian liberals have played a powerful role in opposing Putin, but the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has laid bare a deeply ingrained sense of imperial superiority toward the peoples of their country’s former imperial possessions. As the world wakes up to the true scale of Russia’s neoimperial ambitions, Russian liberals must do the difficult but long-overdue work of shedding their historical prejudices and learning to engage meaningfully and respectfully with the burgeoning anti-colonial movements within and outside of Russia. These include groups like Free Idel-Ural—which represents the interests of the native ethnic groups in the Russian republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Udmurtia, Mordovia, Chuvashia, and Mari El—and Free Buryatia, an anti-war organization recently founded in the republic of the same name. Only then can Russian liberalism become a truly democratic force.

Emily Couch is a British freelance writer who has published on politics and culture in Eastern Europe and Eurasia for The Moscow Times, Index on Censorship, and the Kennan Institute.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

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