December 1, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 340

In Russia, Liberal Thinking Is Alive But Liberal Politics Is Dead

December 1, 2021 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 340

Every observer of Russia's political developments knows that those opposing the current political regime on a pro-democracy basis are often labeled (and consider themselves) "liberals." This may look deeply misleading to a Western analyst since Russian "liberals" often have nothing in common with "liberals" in the United States.

Max Beckmann "Die Nacht"

Russian "Liberals" Of The 1990s Put The Country On The Brink Of A Civil War

The phenomenon of Russian "liberalism" can be traced to the late 1980s, when proponents of democratic changes in the Soviet Union were pushing for more openness, democracy, and market reforms. At those times, "liberalism" was seen as an adversary to dictatorship and a centralized economy. Consequently, to be liberal meant to support human rights and popular self-rule and to oppose imperial governance.

As market reforms started in the early 1990s, the term "liberal" became firmly associated with the free market economy, which opposed the authoritative Socialist Volkswirtschaft ("National economy"). Since most of those supporting anti-Communist political transformation were pro-market politicians at the same time, the term "liberal" rapidly started to be used to designate all pro-democratic, and even all Western-oriented public figures.

However, from the very start of President Boris Yeltsin's rule in the 1990s, Russian "liberals" (e.g., Yegor Gaidar, acting prime minister of Russia from June 1992 to December 1992, Anatoly Chubais, Russian business oligarch and a proponent of Russia's "piratization,"[1] slain Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who served as first deputy prime minister under Yeltsin, and dozens of others) became associated with not only those who supported a more free and democratic country, but also with those responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic reforms that pushed the majority of the population into misery.

More importantly, the "liberals" of the 1990s were so obsessed with the threat of "Communist revenge" that they put the country on the brink of civil war in 1993, after Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet. They drafted a new "super-presidential" constitution and did their best to reinstall Yeltsin in the highly contested 1996 election, opting for an alliance with Russia's "oligarchs" who profited from the early market transformation. Hence, by the end of the 1990s, Russian "liberals" were not supporters of the democratic process, as they openly suggested that there was "no alternative" to Boris Yeltsin,[2] in the same way that today's Russian radical conservatives pretend that there is no one but Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In The Early 2000s, Most Russian "Liberals" Supported Putin

It is important to mention that "liberals" have never constituted a majority in Russia. They were popular only when "liberalism" meant democracy, as in the late 1980s in the Soviet Union. Then, the popular rejection of communism helped "liberals" change the regime in a perfectly democratic manner and to gain all instruments of power. However, as economic reforms progressed, the support for "liberals" diminished.

In 1993, the "liberal" party Vybor Rossii ("Russia's Choice"), led by Yegor Gaidar, got only 15.5 percent of the national vote, while in 1995 Nash Dom Rossia ("Russia, Our Home"), associated with then prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, secured 10.1 percent.[3] By the early 2000s, the situation further deteriorated, as most of the "liberals" supported Putin because of his seemingly pro-business and pro-market economy position as well as due to his Westernized look. It is worth noting that, at that time, even the party Pravoye Delo ("Right Cause"), with Nemtsov as one of its leaders, actively supported Putin's election in 2000.[4] A smaller part of Russian liberals that did not support Putin became marginalized instead. For example, the Yabloko centrist pro-democracy party lost its bid for the State Duma in 2003 and never returned to parliament. In fact, in the mid-2000s, Russian "liberals" were split and divided on Putin[5] and consequently they were squeezed out of the entire "power vertical." Only a small number of "liberals" managed to retain non-crucial positions in state-owned companies, regional governments, or economy-related ministries.

"Liberals" And "Systemic Liberals"

Thereafter the term "liberal" became more complex. On the one hand, anti-Kremlin activists often described themselves as "liberals," so the term rapidly became a label that Putin's elite used for designating "traitors" and supporters of the West, accused of being responsible for the crises of the 1990s, and of wishing to "revive" the power of the oligarchs. Essentially, "liberal" became a synonym for an enemy of Russia. Of course, most of these "liberals" are in fact Russian patriots who support the idea of a more prosperous and free country, but whom Putin's propaganda marginalized by associating "liberalism" with the crises of the 1990s, eliminating all chance of popular support for Russian liberals.

On the other hand, some people well incorporated into the power elite but advocating free market stances became known as "systemic liberals" (e.g., Alexey Kudrin, a personal friend to President Putin from the time they both worked in the St. Petersburg city administration in the 1990s). Over the years, "systemic liberals" proposed less federalism, less social spending, and orchestrated the tax reform that made the current regime so effective. These people are seen (baselessly, in my view) as opposing, if not fighting and constantly losing against, the siloviki, a group of high-ranking politicians who rose out of the KGB/FSB, Interior Ministry, and the Army. Some of these "systemic liberals," such as Russian politician and former Governor of Kirov region Nikita Belykh and former minister of economic development Alexey Ulyukaev, are now in prison for, as many believe, falsified allegations.

The Disunited Leadership And Internal Contradictions Of Russian "Liberals''

As Putin's regime consolidated, the "non-systemic liberals" became less and less influential in Russian politics, with only the exception of the period of 2010-2012, when Dmitry Medvedev's (at that time serving as Russia's President) campaign of "liberalization" produced some hope for political change. During that time, a quite impressive coalition of opposition forces emerged, uniting people as diverse as political activist Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, Russian economist and politician Grigory Yavlinsky and Russian historian Vladimir Ryzhkov, not to mention billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and several Duma deputies representing the Spravedlivaya Rossiya ("A Just Russia") party. But the major problem of Russian "liberals" manifested itself even then: a disunited leadership and acute internal contradictions.

This problem has been and remains the single most important challenge for the Russian opposition, as each prominent figure believes that she/he should be recognized as the movement's sole and uncontested leader. This feeling comes either from personal qualities (this mainly applies to chess master Garry Kasparov and tycoon-turned-Kremlin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky) or from people's positions in Russian power elites (that could be said about Boris Nemtsov, Russian economist Andrey Nechaev, Grigory Yavlinsky, and many others).

Since the late Soviet period, dissenters have been very sensitive to all possible nuances in program documents and declarations, so even the ordinary members of the movement hate each other quite intensely. No attempt to unite the "liberals" succeeded, and after the most decent and collaborative opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed, the chances for coordination evaporated altogether. Hence, liberals (who individually are much more talented and capable than Putin's loyalists) have been sidelined, while Putin's loyalists proved to be very united and effective. I cannot explain this transcending dislike of everyone by everyone else inside the Russian opposition in any other way than by saying that the lack of any activity that may yield visible results pushes them into endless quarrels with each other.

This fact contributes to another problem. Most Russian "liberals," who are driven by their hatred of Putin and his regime, have become very disconnected from the current reality of Russian life and the country's social developments. Their writings have become totally emotional with less and less analytical elements, full of misleading predictions about the regime's imminent collapse that never come true. As many "liberals" were squeezed out of the country and became part of the Western expert community they started advocating increasing Western involvement in Russia's affairs and promoting anti-Russian economic sanctions that decreased their approval and influence inside the country even further.

The "Navalny Phenomenon" Limited The Support For Russia's Liberals

Nevertheless, in Russia, quite a lot of people are ready to support the agenda that might be called "liberal" in the post-Soviet sense: i.e., pro-democratic and market-oriented. The "Navalny phenomenon" has proved this quite impressively. From 2013 to 2021, jailed activist Alexey Navaly was supported by hundreds of thousands of people that were ready even to take to the streets, risking being beaten or arrested by the police.

Yet, at the same time, Navalny's rise caused hate and fear among the largest part of Russian "liberals." For example, the Yabloko party condemned Navalny's activity and the party's leader Grigory Yavlinsky wrote an article in which he (I would call this a unique move for a political activist) suggested that no Navalny supporter should vote for his party in the September 2021 parliamentary elections.[6] As the elections ended and Yabloko got a mere 1.34 percent of the popular vote,[7] Yavlinsky's colleagues issued another document blaming a dozen prominent pro-democracy activists and journalists for supporting Navalny and his "smart voting" strategy, stressing that the Yabloko party members have nothing in common with these people (several of my friends, who are high-ranking members of Yabloko party, simply ignored my requests for private commentary about what stood behind this move).[8] So, I would say that, other than promoting himself, Navalny greatly limited the support for Russia's liberals and intensified the quarrels in the pro-democracy camp. Furthermore, many people doubt that even Navalny can be considered a "liberal." [9]


The Kremlin administration, which closely monitors the developments inside the Russian opposition, was smart enough to create a puppet party called Novye Lyudi ("New People"), chaired by a not very well-known entrepreneur, Alexey Nechaev, who was allowed to run in the recent parliamentary elections and easily broke the five percent threshold and squeezed into the State Duma.[10] In the upcoming years, this party will become the place for ambitious young politicians who do not want to be associated with old pro-Kremlin parties to secure career prospects.[11] In fact, a lot of "liberals" want to become part of the political class rather than remain among the crowd that is regularly humiliated by the police.

There are dozens of signs confirming this trend. For instance, the editor-in-chief of the most respected "liberal" media outlet Echo Moskvy ("Echo of Moscow"),[12] is now defending the greatest electoral fraud in years orchestrated in Moscow through the use of "electronic voting."[13] Further, running on the Yabloko ticket, Vladimir Ryzhkov, the first deputy Duma Speaker between 1997 and 1999, was elected to the Moscow City Council with the support of the local authorities and, soon after being elected, voted together with pro-government deputies in favor of Mayor Sergey Sobyanin's Moscow City 2022 budget, which was criticized by the independent deputies for neglecting many citizens' needs and the prospective goals of developing the city.[14]

In Russia, "liberal" ideas are popular mainly among city dwellers who believe that Putin is taking the country in the wrong direction. These sentiments might become a foundation for an influential "liberal" party standing for market reforms, the rule of law, and democratic practices. However, the chances for the launch of a "liberal" party is close to zero, not only because the Kremlin will suppress any attempt, but because there are no capable leaders that can organize such a party without becoming an immediate target of all other "liberals." Therefore, even though the liberal thinking is alive in Russia, "liberal" politics is dead, and will not resurrect in the years to come.

*Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, Ph.D. in Economics, is a Special Advisor to MEMRI's Russian Media Studies Project.


[1], accessed November 30, 2021.

[2], October 2017.

[3], December 8, 2007.

[4], 2005.

[5], 2003.

[6], February 6, 2021.

[7], September 19, 2021.

[8], October 19, 2021.

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1563, Alexey Navalny: Future President Or Prisoner For Life?, March 11, 2021.

[11], November 18, 2021.

[12], September 25, 2021.

[13], November 3, 2021.

[14], October 4, 2021.

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