Sunday, January 17, 2016

How and Why an Extreme Russian Nationalist Became a Pro-Western Democrat

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – The Russian intellectual pantheon is filled with people who used to be liberals and now have become committed nationalists and imperialists. That makes it important to recognize that despite Vladimir Putin, not all Russian intellectuals have moved in that direction. Some have shifted in exactly the opposite way.

            One of the most notable of those is Aleksey Shiropayev who attracted attention 20 years ago for his pamphlet suggesting that the Russian fascists of Harbin provided a useful alternative roadmap for Russia in the Yeltsin era but who now is committed “democratic, civic, progressive, pro-European and pro-Western” values (

            In an interview with Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Shiropayev traces his evolution back to a challenge the late Valeriya Novodvorskaya presented to extreme nationalists like Aleksandr Barkashov. She told him that those who call themselves Russian nationalists are always celebrating state power rather than the values of the Russian people.

            “If you Russian nationalists would turn to the original Russian values, those of Novgorod and the Veche, the values of freedom, European values,” the Moscow commentator said about a decade ago, you would be more credible as nationalists.  That statement, Shiropayev says, may well have been the first push on his path from extreme nationalist to liberal democrat.

            Earlier in 1993, he recounts, he published “Glory to Russia,” a pamphlet devoted to the Russian fascist movement in the Far East in the 1930s.  “It seemed to me then,” he says, “that this was an extremely interesting alternative to the Yeltsin regime as we then called it.”  But things have worked out very differently than Shiropayev expected.

            “’Glory to Russia’ was and is the official slogan of Russian fascists,” he points out. “The most piquant aspect of this is that now President Putin uses this phrase in public … So in  acertain sense, these ideals have triumphed, and someone is certainly happy about this,” but not, Shiropayev says, he.

            Several years ago, Shiropayev was one of the organizers of the National Democratic Alliancce which sought to promote a democratic and pro-Western nationalism in Russia because of a conviction that “the main future danger is pseudo-Russian nationalism.” Tragically, the annexation of Crimea showed the power of “imperial stereotypes” among Russians.

            Shiropayev says that he has also given up on his former commitment to monarchism. “Only democracy, only a federal rearrangement – what we live in now is not a federation but rather a certain partial empire considering of unequal subjects” can save the situation, he continues.

            What is necessary, he says, is “a normal federation of the US type, consisting of equal sovereign subjects having their own constitutions, police, budgets and so on, and one that rests on democracy, something else Russia does not now have.

            “I think that for Russia a parliamentary democracy would be best of all because the presidential model inevitably leads us to a single power of a monarchical type,” Shiropayev says.  The only kind of monarchy he could imagine backing in Russia would be a constitutional monarchy like the one in Britain.

            What Russia needs to achieve that is a constituent assembly. At present, he says, “it is impossible to imagine a Russian Maidan.” The reason for that is that Russians and Ukrainians are two different peoples. There are Russians and there are Ukrainians; there is no triune Russian people.”

            “Ukrainians are a fully independent, separate and in many regards different people including in terms of values, mentality, character and so on.” That is why they could organize a Maidan and that is why the Maidan could succeed. Despite all the efforts of the Russian empire, “Ukraine is really Europe with European traditions.”

            Russia in contrast at least since the destruction of Novgorod has followed a different line, one based on “the establishment of a horde-empire project” rather than any national one.  As a result of his recognition of this reality, he says, he has changed and now feels about his own country more sadness than horror.

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