Russia Needs Its Own Bernie Sanders

Russia Needs Its Own Bernie Sanders

Can leftist sociologist and columnist Boris Kagarlitsky create room for a new politics in Russia?


When Muscovites go to the polls this fall for Russia’s regional elections, some of them will see the name of Boris Kagarlitsky on the ballot: Kagarlitsky—a sociologist, columnist, and leftist social figure who has played a role in so many of the most important events in recent Russian history—is running for a seat in the Moscow parliament.

The regional elections, which will take place in Moscow and several other Russian regions on September 8, are quickly turning into a significant political event that may determine the future of the country. A record number of candidates are either independent of the “ruling party,” United Russia, or strongly in opposition to it. The country’s regional election committees, controlled by the authorities, tried to keep these candidates from taking part in the elections by finding mythical violations in the lists of signatures they had gathered to qualify to run. But when the election committees’ meddling became known, more than 20,000 people joined a rally in Moscow “For Honest Elections” on July 20—a number of protesters that hasn’t been seen since the 2011–12 demonstrations against corrupt election processes. This July Moscow protest was peaceful, and civil society celebrated a victory. But in the end, most of the independent candidates did not make it onto the ballots. On July 27, around 10,000 people came out for an unsanctioned rally in support of the unregistered candidates. This time the police were brutal, more than a thousand people were arrested (some say more than 1,500), including journalists. Police held the leaders of some opposition movements for several days. (Protests are continuing through August) The liberal online Republic wrote: “Elections in Russia are over. What should the opposition do now?”

Boris Kagarlitsky, the founder of the new movement Civil Solidarity, believes that Russians’ real political participation in the life of their country is only beginning. He is the son of public intellectuals and the grandson of a revolutionary who has a street in Moscow named for him. A Marxist dissident, he was sentenced to a year in Lefortovo Prison in 1982 on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. Kagarlitsky is an active promoter of left-wing ideas, and has long been involved in the union movement in Russia. He was elected to the Moscow city parliament, Mossovet, in 1990 as a member of the Democratic Russia bloc, and later created the New Left group. In 1993 he spoke out against President Yeltsin’s shelling of the parliament; he was arrested and beaten. In recent years he has been teaching and writing. His more than a dozen books include The Thinking Reed (Verso, London, 1989, winner of the Deutscher Memorial Prize), Globalization and the Left (2002), Revolt of the Middle Class (2003), Controlled Democracy (f2005), Neoliberalism and Revolution (2013), and Between Class and Discourse (2017). He is a professor at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences and the editor in chief of the online journal Rabkor.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Boris, you are a registered candidate for election to the Moscow city Duma from the Dorogomilovo, Ramenki and Fili-Davydkovo districts—these districts are made up of academics, upper-middle-class constituents as well as pensioners and students. Why did you decide to participate in this election, which many think is rigged and will result in no real gains for the opposition?

Boris Kagarlitsky: The coming elections on September 8 are very important, perhaps a watershed. That is evinced by the conflicts around them—not only in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in other regions. In Astrakhan, for example, where Oleg Shein was kept from registering for the gubernatorial election as a candidate from Just Russia; he is a notable union figure and a leader of the movement against pension reforms. The popularity of United Russia, the party of power, is extremely low. Protest feelings are running high, which was noted in 2018 by sociologists. On the other hand, the majority of people are not ready for radical protest. However, they were prepared to protest at election precincts by voting against United Russia. The elections are the field where the real battle will take place. The authorities feel that. They are trying to cut off the independent candidates on one side, and on the other to tighten control over the official opposition parties. That is difficult, because the people in these parties have also sensed the winds of change. The Just Russia party, under pressure from its members who support Oleg Shein, have signed an agreement with the Civil Solidarity movement.

The movement’s leaders—its founder, Georgy Fedorov, and I—are on the lists of Just Russia. This September, we’ll be electing a regional parliament in Moscow, which will write the laws and control the budget of the wealthiest and most densely populated part of the country. It’s no surprise that the stakes are critically high. There is an opportunity to bring many active people, volunteers, into the political process. These are the left politicians of the future. The head of my election staff, the political scientist Alexei Simayanov, talked to our volunteers, and said, “From this moment, you are politicians.” He was right.

NA: What are the main points of your program?

BK: Moscow has a budget of approximately 3 trillion rubles [$47.3 billion]. That’s bigger than the budget of Berlin, Warsaw, and Stockholm. It’s even a bit higher than London’s. The corruption is monstrous, exacerbated by the incredible centralization of all decision-making. The regional deputies are barely competent and there is no transparency in spending. About a trillion rubles a year is simply stolen. All the opposition candidates talk about corruption. And about democratization. This is the broad, general opposition agenda. But there is another aspect that only the left talks about—neoliberal policy and its social consequences. Neoliberal policies are in place in health, education, and transportation in Moscow. Public need is ignored, and the city authorities buy services from themselves or companies they control. Everything is becoming a paid service. Public goods are being commercialized. The quality of life is noticeably deteriorating.

Our campaign offers broad democratization, giving control for spending on development to the localities. People must decide what they need. We’re not talking about the service market but the strategy of urban development. That is our local agenda. The bigger agenda is the need for the left to be part of the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy is growing in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Astrakhan, and other cities—and our goal is to take a worthy place in that process and influence its results. Society should not perceive the situation as having only the authorities and the liberals, who support the same economic system but are unhappy with corruption. Our task is to show that there is a big role in the democratic process for left ideas and social demands.

NA: Are the opposition liberals ready for that? [Russian liberals are more akin to neoliberals in the economic sphere, while socially liberal.]

BK: Unfortunately, not always. Some leaders of the opposition movements behaved very badly when we were preparing for the recent rallies. But we don’t care how an individual politician treats us, we care about general democratic principles. We defended the right of all independent candidates to take part in the elections, even though the views of most of them were not at all close to ours. They are political opponents, for there is a principle difference between the left and the liberals in Russia. Liberals want freedom and rights only for themselves and exclusively for themselves. We want freedom and rights for all.

NA: Do you work with other left movements?

BK: Yes, with individual candidates from left parties and movements. But there are no left parties in the true sense in Russia. You can’t even talk about parties as such without a lot of stipulations.

Nevertheless, there’s a high probability that a left candidate will be elected. It’s not very important from which party. There is the possibility to create an association, a movement, which Russian leftists have long lacked. The September 8 election is also an informational breakthrough—a way of reaching a huge number of people who have never heard our ideas. I spend a lot of time in the regions outside Moscow, and I see that until recently people knew little about the election. We have to work with people and explain our positions. The voters are worried by practical issues. Say, that trolleybus routes have been canceled. Odd construction sites in the town center. The razing of 18th- and 19th-century architecture. Forcing people to move from the center to the outskirts. It’s important to start a conversation with people about what worries them today.

The situation as a whole is very unstable and the framework set up by the authorities could collapse by autumn. The elections play an important role. New people will come into the Moscow Duma in any case. This will definitely affect the policies of the city and country.

NA: The latest response of the Moscow authorities—the brutal treatment of people protesting the refusal to register independent candidates—suggests that there is no possibility of dialogue.

BK: We don’t need dialogue. We need to win the election. Mass protests on the streets of Russian cities have become commonplace, as have the harsh police methods to break them up. The resistance to creating garbage dumps, which has turned into a drawn-out war in Shies in northern Russia, blockades of various construction projects that threaten parks and architectural monuments, demonstrations in support of people [who are] being persecuted, the worker strike in Tataria—all create the emotional background of the election campaign in Moscow and 28 other regions.

On July 27, several thousand people came out in the center of the capital to express their outrage over the removal of independent opposition candidates from the slate—the protests continued into August. The demonstrators were violently dispersed, but that does not mean that the authorities have won by resorting to a show of force. The problem is not even in the 2 to 3,000 activists who were beaten on Tverskaya Street, but in the average citizen who does not share the ideas of the protesters but at the same time is growing increasingly upset by the actions of the police. And it is this citizen, silent for now, who will punish the Russian regime on September 8 with a massive turnout, voting for the moderate opposition.

NA: What makes you optimistic?

BK: We are practically the only ones to campaign on behalf of ordinary people. Like Bernie Sanders. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny is supported by business, by famous entrepreneurs like Pavel Durov, who owns the Telegram App channel. Our supporters send us contributions that are the equivalent of $5, $10, $20—from all over the country. They wish us success. Many remain anonymous. There was nothing like that last year. The situation is changing swiftly.

NA: What are your information platforms?

BK: Our main online resource is Rabkor, a daily internal journal dealing with politics, economics, society, and culture; other groups are tied to it in social networks and messengers, but it’s relatively small. We are not allowed on the federal channels. But some more popular online and YouTube channels show us solidarity. And by law they have to give us a modest amount of time on Moscow television channels as political candidates. We are making connections with the audience, which we did not have not so long ago. In any case, the situation is changing. Just a week ago, many Muscovites were not interested in the elections. The authorities will realize once the ballots are counted that the country has changed. The regime is so unpopular that United Russia didn’t dare present its list, all their candidates are pretending to be independents. Just imagine: The ruling party is going underground!

Our scenario is that candidates who are not from the ruling party will be elected in any case. It is important that there be representatives of left movements among them to promote the left agenda.

NA: You mean, a turn to the left is possible in Russian politics?

BK: It is, I think. The neoliberal system, into which Russia fits nicely, is falling apart all over the world; Donald Trump used that crisis. Trump is not random. The world system is in crisis, and it’s the same in Russia. A system based on using up Soviet resources [primarily exporting gas and oil developed in the Soviet period] will not last long. The regime keeps talking of the need for a modernization breakthrough, but a breakthrough is impossible in the existing system. Without social transformations, there won’t be people capable of implementing one. They wanted to have a breakthrough in tsarist Russia, too, but it didn’t happen, because it’s impossible without revolution. An objective necessity is the expansion of the social sector, a transition to democratic investment planning, an expansion of social mobility, and an equalization of the disparities among regions.

NA: Are young people interested in left ideas?

BK: Many are not interested in politics at all. But the ones who are, are interested in left ideas. We have very young people among our campaign volunteers.

NA: How do they feel about violence, by the way? Many critics of the left accuse it of justifying violence as a means to an end.

BK: We’re accused of rehabilitating Stalin, too. But as soon as real politics begin, they’ll forget Stalin. The Stalin experience offers nothing for the modern political situation. It’s a different era with different problems. Society has changed. Under Stalin, the society was peasant for the most part, very young, and many young people learned to kill during the civil war, so the threshold of violence was different. Today, it’s not even that the new left has learned the lesson and rejected terror as a method. The point is that the world has changed. Today, terror will not solve anything. Even the people who carry around portraits of Stalin have no prescriptions for solutions. A portrait of Stalin is more a rebuke to Putin. On the whole, the society tends toward left social democracy. For me personally, that may be too moderate. But in any case, people want social transformations and a mixed economy. People want a Russian Bernie Sanders.

NA: What do Americans not know about the Russian situation?

BK: The mass media view of Russia as a monolithic society where there is one all-deciding leader, Putin, is totally absurd. We have a much more complex political system. It is not a democracy, but it’s far from the caricature image that exists in the American press. The liberal press often writes that in Russia, besides the government, there is a group of pro-Western liberals juxtaposed to the rest of society, and the society is rather grim. That is also not true, and this election campaign shows that the picture is much more varied.

Finally, the Russian liberal opposition does not offer a social way out of the situation. At best it recommends fighting corruption. Let me note that its fellow thinkers make up the majority of the government.

Society demands much deeper changes. Pension reform and the protests that followed in this last year revealed deep contradictions that had been accumulating over a long time. People were able to express what they had been afraid to say out loud. Now they say that they are being cheated, that the state is trying to achieve its own goals that are far from the interests of people, at the expense of the citizens. People are gaining confidence that their voice should be heard.

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