As Russia celebrated Orthodox New Year last week, Vladimir Putin should have had more reason than most to hope for a fresh start. A December poll by the independent Levada Centre found that nearly 70% of Russians believe the government is ineffective, only 35% trust parliament and as 2012 drew to a close, Putin’s ratings stood at their lowest levels since he ascended to the throne in 1999.
Yet in spite of all this, Russia’s president has little to fear. Despite continued disappointment with his rule, the opposition, far from experiencing a surge in popularity, appears on the verge of petering out altogether. There is a sense that the international community seems to be losing faith in the movement: on Thursday, the persecuted activist Alexander Dolmatov killed himself in Holland; the Dutch authorities had refused to give him asylum.
This is odd. After all, Russia’s protesters seemed to have had it all figured out: a few charismatic leaders; the support of artists, intellectuals and the international community; and a vocal, technologically savvy middle-class base animated by a coherent and undeniable catalogue of the regime’s venality and corruption.
So what is it about the Moscow and St Petersburg protesters that they can’t seal the deal? One place that might offer some answers is another country that defies electoral logic: the US. As Thomas Frank detailed in What’s the Matter with Kansas in 2004, the American right has successfully replaced the old class-based ideological divisions with new ones based on culture, perceived authenticity and lifestyle. That conservative economic policies uphold the interests of a small minority has become irrelevant – as long as their cultural positions remain as populist as possible.
By the same token, progressive economic policies favoured by liberals have been subordinated to their supposedly elitist cultural pursuits. The left, Frank wrote, has become mostly “identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences” – Volvos, lattes, fancy colleges, European holidays – which “reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism”. The cosmopolitanism shared by many American liberals is cast as not merely fancy and out of touch – but foreign and seditious.
Putin may have rejected American ideas of democracy but he seems to have wholeheartedly internalised Bush’s approach to the culture war, branding his own opposition as elitist and unrepresentative of common people. The Kremlin is using these culture war tactics to drive a wedge between Russian heartland voters and the educated, upwardly mobile liberal opposition clustered around Moscow and St Petersburg.
Acting like a Bush-era Republican, Putin has portrayed his critics as out-of-touch wannabe foreigners: over-educated, big-city, decadent, effete and possibly sexually deviant in contrast to the “real Russia” – simple, hard-working, small-town, God-fearing, conservative and patriotic. In doing so, he has been able deftly to draw attention away from key economic and political arguments towards issues of identity and authenticity.
Unfortunately, the opposition seems stubbornly intent on playing right into his hands. For a movement predicated on a struggle from the ground up, there is a lot of truth to the suggestion that the opposition is contemptuous of mainstream voters, who are often seen as unsophisticated, backward and easily manipulated. Like the portion of American liberals who dismiss southerners (Austin, Texas excepted) as irredeemable gun-obsessed racists, many members of Russia’s opposition seem to be as anti-heartland as they are anti-Putin.
In America as in Russia, one of the best ways to tell a liberal elitist seems to be by whether they are drinking wine. Particularly French wine. If real Americans drink beer and bourbon and real Russians drink beer and vodka, it’s no surprise that the legendary hangout of the Russian opposition is a faux-French bistro called Jean Jacques, famous for its burgundy. The Financial Times once described its clientele as “united by their distaste for the Kremlin and their love of good wine”. You don’t have to be a Putinite to notice something faintly dispiriting in these self-styled latter-day Decembrists whiling away their hours at this fake Gallic joint, laughably flaunting the ill-fitting costumes of a mythical “normal European bourgeoisie”.
The fact is, culture wars wouldn’t be remotely as effective if the US liberals and the Russian opposition didn’t at least partially reflect their stereotypes. As an office manager told the New York Times, many of his employees participated in the anti-government protests simply because they were trendy. Though “they felt strongly about the anti-Putin rallies,” he said, “they also feel strong emotions about their iPhones”.
Of course, the main problem with the opposition is not their drinking tastes, collective Europhilia or even simple snobbery. Rather, it is that they, like their American counterparts, have abandoned the central tenet of the original movement. And for both US and Russian liberals, that has historically been a commitment to greater equality.
Radio Liberty’s Kirill Kobrin recently observed that since the days of the great 19th-century liberal philosopher Alexander Herzen, Russian liberals have been accused by traditionalists of decadence, exoticism and nefarious western influence. However, the link that tied these ideas to ordinary Russians was the powerful strain of socialism running through Herzen’s works. Russian liberals have always been educated and western-orientated, but they used to also be committed to the equality and dignity of the common man. In abandoning this commitment to the plight of average people, argues Kobrin, the contemporary opposition has forfeited its popular legitimacy.
Bush won, Frank acknowledged, in part because American liberals “ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency”. In Putin’s Russia, the stakes are even higher. But until they give the heartland a good reason to get on board, the opposition can have only itself to blame for losing the culture war.