The New Liberalism: A Scenario with Variations
No. 2 2009 April/June

There is no doubt that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wants
Russia to become a free country ruled by law. One would be a na?ve
cynic – and cynics are often na?ve – to think that a person could
say “Freedom is better than not being free,” while actually
thinking “Isn’t it clever of me to deceive these fools?”

It is something else that people always want many different
things; their desires may run counter to each another and freedom
may be far from the strongest among them. However, let us imagine
that the president is indeed full of resolve to put the country on
the track towards greater freedom. This is easy to imagine; all the
more so because his pro-democratic, legitimacy-related aspirations
may stand in accordance with his other natural desires, such as
independent actions, real rather than formal personal power,
respect and popularity. Many people now dream of a thaw after
“Putin’s freeze.”
This is an ideal, liberal scenario, so let us analyze it in more


The whole story begins with certain phrases (which have already
been spoken) and symbolic gestures that place Medvedev, the
president, some distance away from his predecessor Vladimir Putin,
who left Russia somewhat frost-bitten before he became prime
minister. The economic crisis deepens and Medvedev mildly
criticizes the government for bureaucratic methods and
insufficiently energetic steps amid extreme conditions (this has
already happened). Polls show a flagging trust in the prime
minister (which has happened as well). Medvedev makes a number of
statements, saying that the scale of this crisis stems in some
measure from previous mistakes, uttering phrases like “the mistakes
we made earlier.” Yet everyone understands who is actually meant by
“we.” The president’s rating begins to climb above that of the
prime minister, who suddenly turns up “in charge of crisis
management” (this has not happened yet, although it is quite

This is not all that important in itself, but it has a symbolic
significance. Everyone is waiting for the climax of the story. As a
man of good morals, the president understands he owes much to the
prime minister, who was his predecessor, but he also understands
the government’s flaws, his personal responsibility to the people
and the interests of the state, which prevail over his personal
feelings. Time passes and Putin steps down as prime minister with
honors (what he will do next is a big headache for Russia, but we
can think up something). And then it turns out that the people
really do not care, the top bureaucracy has been longing to see
this, and the liberals are walking on air. The West is also
satisfied and it hopes that the thaw will bring about a d?tente.
After meeting with Medvedev, U.S. President Barack Obama says that
he looked into the Russian president’s eyes and realized that he
was a genuine democrat seeking an all-round modernization of his
great country. And as for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we will sort
it out somehow…

The next event is the resignation of the most odious and anecdotal
figures of the outgoing era (“Putin’s vegetables”) and people “with
up-to-date thinking and perfect knowledge of the economy” are
appointed to a number of top positions. And if there are any signs
that the country is emerging from the crisis (because any crisis
comes to an end sooner or later), public opinion will naturally
link these signs to Putin’s resignation and to the new
appointments. Russian television (its top executives may be
replaced or left where they are – they know how to trim the sails)
starts churning out shows deriding the system of the recent past.
It may even show the best of the satirical Kukly (Puppets) program,
including the notorious scene that portrayed Putin as Little
Zaches, which destroyed the old NTV channel. A movie based on
Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, The Day of the Oprichnik, is tremendously
successful. Then Medvedev is overwhelmingly re-elected – for a
six-year term this time – in 2012. And the rank-and-file say things
like “Thank God we’re past Putin’s era now,” or “we didn’t know
much, did we?” or “I never voted for Putin.”

Does this scenario seem realistic? No doubt it will require hard
work for it to become possible and involve quite a number of
psychological and political difficulties, and yet I think it is
quite feasible. It intertwines two storylines and both of them are
quite “normal” – they have been replayed in history numerous

The first storyline implies that the ruler discards the people who
propelled him or her to the throne, and who may think that the
ruler should be grateful and obedient for ages. For instance,
Empress Anne got rid of her top supporters immediately. All Soviet
leaders from Josef Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev acted in much the
same way. And Putin got rid of Boris Berezovsky as early as he
could do so.

The second storyline depicts a liberalization that comes about
after the ruler, whose rigidity (or toughness) everyone eventually
grew tired of, has exited the scene – like when Alexander I
ascended to the throne after Paul I, and Alexander II after
Nicholas I. The two storylines often merge into one. A ruler gets
rid of the people who propelled him to power and becomes popular by
introducing liberalization measures (Khrushchev, Gorbachev).
Chances abound to watch one more movie contrived along this

When you develop a script, though, it is easy to put a period,
write “The End” and bring the story to a satisfying conclusion –
the victory of democratic forces over reactionaries. But in actual
history, periods turn into commas and storylines smoothly continue
to develop or gradually evolve into something different. So let us
look at how they could develop.


Initially, liberalization may be accompanied by a growth in both
the president’s popularity and his personal (not formal) power, but
later inevitable problems will spring up since no kind of
liberalization can be kept at a level where it would be completely
harmless. Just press you finger against a liberal’s mouth and he
will start gnawing your arm. You are sure to hear claims about
“slanderous concoctions,” “irresponsible demagogy” and “attempts to
speak ill of all our achievements.” Others will say it is necessary
to sort out the Yukos case (although Yukos has already been taken
apart and it would do no good to stir around in old ashes). And
others may even bring up the beginning of the second Chechen war,
and this is something totally out of place.

Liberals are not the only social force; society has elements of
every description. There are Tatars, Chechens and Ingushes;
communists, patriots and even National Bolsheviks. Someone will
eventually start claiming that “there was much more order during
Putin’s rein.” And the president will have to say to them: “You
don’t want a return of the recent past, do you?” And then to
others: “You surely don’t want a return to the 1990s, do you?” This
in itself is an unpleasant and dangerous thing if you consider that
2018 is looming on the far-distant horizon. The president has
immeasurable opportunities. He can stop rocking the boat and see to
it that a person he trusts completely is elected in 2018.
(Moreover, he could even amend the Constitution and stand for
re-election several more times.) But for this to become possible,
he would have to tighten control over society again and to “freeze”
it a little. He would be pushed to do so by natural human and
political instincts – any man tries to win the game he is involved
in and to keep control over the situation. And, as it always
happens, ideal considerations would fully coincide with these
measures – one cannot allow “irresponsible demagogues” to dictate
politics, or moreover to grab control of the country.

Yet this would mean that nothing has changed in the country; that
we continue to live under an authoritarian regime that shoots
through all the periods of “thawing” and “freezing” – in the
Tsarist and Soviet eras alike. All of this was splendidly described
by the 19th century satirical writer Mikhail


The first step, insufficient but absolutely necessary, towards
resolving the pressing problem of society’s transition to democracy
is to defeat the supreme power through elections. However, you
cannot demand that the president prepare his own defeat. The best
one can expect of a president who craves democracy and lawfulness
is that he will not overstep certain barriers in the struggle with
his opponents; for instance, he will not forge the results of the
vote, not cut off his opponents from the mass media or accuse them
of tax evasion at the first signs of opposition on their
Such was Gorbachev – a normal man who did not want to be defeated.
He fought to the end and clutched at the illusion of possible
victory. But even when faced with the threat of losing power and
the collapse of the state, he did not do the things that his
instincts and common sense called for, but ran counter to his ideal
objectives or the norms he had set for himself. This is a very rare
occurrence and, as shown by Gorbachev’s own experience and the
experience of post-Gorbachev developments, this is not nearly
enough for a successful transition to democracy.

The whole story is bigger than electing someone other than the
person who is already in power or someone handpicked by the state
helmsman in 2012, 2018 or 2024. The crux of the matter is that the
winner should not affirm his rights to power the way Boris Yeltsin
and Vladimir Putin did. We must ensure that the road is open for a
fair contest for power under unified rules, make sure that the
victors and losers change places at the steering wheel, and must
see to it that the process is not blocked immediately. This is what
happened in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko came to power
through a fair democratic election. He decided right away, however,
that he would never let anything like that happen again. To prevent
this, the winner must have at least some commitment to legal and
democratic values in the first place, and there has to be a strong
opposition that can prevent his illegitimate grasp on power if his
commitment proves insufficient. It is much better when a person
like this does not win overwhelmingly and the supporters of the old
powers do not vanish by immediately going over to serve the victor.
Meanwhile, it is precisely this situation that is even more
difficult to imagine in Russia than a triumphant victory of a new
Yeltsin of some kind.


It is not all that difficult to understand all of this. Still,
understanding something when you are sitting quietly in your office
is one thing, but it is something else all together when you find
yourself in the vortex of political struggle. While it is extremely
difficult to demand of a ruler that he not step over the legal
boundaries in struggling with the enemy, even at moments when
defeat is breathing down his neck, it is far more difficult to
demand that he know in advance that he must lose in the end and
that he foster the enemy with own hands – an enemy who will win,
although in a way not conducive to staying afloat… The latter is
totally inconceivable. A politician who realizes this objective and
tries to solve it in earnest would be the greatest personality. As
for the president, there are no grounds whatsoever to rank him
among the greatest people, provided all the respect he

That is why we must realize with full clarity that a liberal
scenario is fairly realistic, yet it is not the one that will help
Russia resolve its main task of the day – the transition to
democracy. One can even say this scenario is not directly related
to it. Transition to democracy cannot be the main business or task
of the government. It is a huge task for society and it can only be
settled through a crisis (a profound political crisis, not the
current economic one) and by a swooping leap across an abyss. The
president’s liberal aspirations and steps can facilitate the
resolution of this task in the future, but can do nothing more than
that. Perhaps it is best not to try to solve it at once. We have
done this twice and both times to no avail. A third attempt should
be made at a later time, but it should be successful so that we
could avoid another demoralizing fiasco. Yet we must develop an
understanding of the importance of resolving this task now; an
understanding of its essence and of the huge difficulty it