Slovenia’s celebrity Marxist theoretician Slavoj Zizek gained a new and unexpected endorsement on Saturday. A leading expert on interpreting philosophers from Marx to Lacan to Hegel, Zizek is not a newcomer to Russian politics. He has written on the war in Ukraine, calling “Putin’s foreign policy…a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line,” but also questioning Europe’s capacity to support “emancipatory politics” in Ukraine. Zizek also conducted a public correspondence with Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova while she was in prison. These prison letters, which traded views on activism and subversion, were recently published under the title Comradely Greetings.
Zizek’s status as a leading light of the radical left and his relationship with Pussy Riot made it all the more unexpected when Alexey Pushkov, chair of the Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, tweeted a quote from Zizek along with a short commentary. “Fundamentalism is a reaction…to the flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism,” Pushkov tweeted, quoting Zizek. What did one of the most prominent backers of Vladimir Putin’s adventurist foreign policy and conservative domestic politics find so interesting in a radical theoretician? And what does this tell us about the state of political ideas in Russia more generally?
The context of Zizek’s quote about liberalism and fundamentalism was the killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who Pushkov has criticized for their willingness to criticize and insult religious believers. Zizek’s article on Charlie Hebdo, published early January in the New Statesman, argued that liberalism was in part to blame for the type of religious fundamentalism that leads to terrorism. Zizek’s rationale was that fundamentalism emerges from liberalism’s refusal to embrace revolutionary demands. “Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries,” Zizek asked, implying that if radical leftist movements had succeeded, fundamentalism would not have taken off. As an example, Zizek cited Pakistan’s Swat valley, arguing that the Taliban has taken advantage of divides between landless tenants and feudal overlords. Because Western liberals have backed the feudal forces in their fight against extremism, Zizek argues, the conflict between landowners and landless workers continues to breed extremism. By backing reactionary forces, liberalism has only itself to blame.
What exactly did Pushkov find appealing in this argument? It is unlikely that the expropriation of Pakistan’s feudal barons was at the top of his list, nor the embrace of revolutionary politics more generally. Indeed, Pushkov and Zizek take a very different attitude toward speech and obscenity more generally. Where Pushkov has embraced ‘traditional’ values and crusaded against gay rights, Zizek regularly uses obscenity to provoke his readers. The copy of Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf sitting on my bookshelf has, on its back cover, an image of Zizek lying on a couch with a tasteless portrait of a naked woman prominently displayed above him. Zizek is hardly a natural ally for conservative politics in Russia.
On the one hand, one could interpret Pushkov’s citation of Zizek as purely cynical. The enemy of my enemy is my friend—and both Pushkov and Zizek are outspoken enemies of Western liberalism. After quoting Zizek on twitter, Pushkov followed up by arguing that “modern liberalism has turned itself into a fundamentalist and authoritarian ideology, seeking to fully exclude any alternatives.” Zizek would no doubt agree.
On the level of practical politics, many have noted Russia’s backing of both far-right and far-left parties in Europe. The Kremlin wants to undermine the European Union, and so do the far-right and far-left. Most analysts have concluded that this is simply a marriage of convenience.
Yet the ties between Russia’s elite and the extremes of Europe’s political spectrum are best understood a symptom not only of the Kremlin’s political isolation in Europe, but also its struggle to articulate a coherent governing ideology. Putin’s Russia is against liberalism, but it does not know what it is for. The Kremlin’s PR chiefs know how to mobilize the population only by articulating what Russia is against: gay propaganda, colored revolutions, criticism of Russia’s role in World War II. When the government has tried to put forth positive visions, they have fallen flat. For example, Vladislav Surkov’s concept of ‘sovereign democracy,’ often celebrated as the defining ideology of Putin’s government, was abandoned because it lacked practical substance.
Similarly, the ‘Russian world’ that Putin promised to defend after the annexation of Crimea has been downplayed since. Perhaps the Kremlin realizes that whipping up ethnic Russian nationalism threatens the stability of Russia’s multi-ethnic society. Other conservative intellectuals have argued that Russia should seek to defend and support the Orthodox faith, but such a position is unlikely to be sustainable in a country where much of the population is agnostic and where many other religions, notably Islam, play a significant role.
So Russia’s government remains ideologically rudderless, with little agreement about what it stands for, and little clarity even about the terms of the debate. Given the country’s tumultuous last century, it makes sense that Russians are skeptical of grand ideological visions, and the rapid economic growth of Putin’s first decade it power made it look wise to set aside discussion of ideas. It was only after the Bolotnaya protests in 2012 called for Putin’s resignation and articulated a liberal vision of Russia’s future, that the Kremlin decided it was resolutely against liberalism. It is still searching for an alternative ideology: trying out nationalism, testing traditionalism, experimenting with imperialism and—most recently—dabbling in Zizek.