The Spectres of Munich

Ilya Budraitskis, Moscow
April 3, 2017

This essay is the first in a series entitled Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms: Writing on and from Post-Soviet Territories, curated by Nikolay Oleynikov for ArtsEverywhere. A series description and full list of essays can be found here.


The Spectres of Munich
The Official Language of Russia: reading between the lines

by Ilya Budraitskis, accompanied with artwork by Vladan Jeremić, from The different graphic series (2015-2017)

At the last Munich Security Conference[1], one of the most important forums for the European political elite, a document was presented with the eloquent title of “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”.  It sounds a note of high drama from its very first lines: “The world is facing an illiberal moment. Across the West and beyond, illiberal forces are gaining ground.” Unambiguously alluding to the image of The Communist Manifesto, the authors of the Munich Report describe the dual trajectory of this “spectre of illiberalism”: “From within, Western societies are troubled by the emergence of populist movements that oppose critical elements of the liberal-democratic status quo. From outside, Western societies are challenged by illiberal regimes trying to cast doubt on liberal democracy and weaken the international order.”[2]

In contrast to the Marxian spectre – a working class grounded in real, material conditions striving to attain its ideal – the spectre of illiberalism has a purely imaginary character. The triumphal march of this spectre is the outcome of growing fear and ignorance, and an uncertainty in its own strengths. It is a flight from freedom in all its manifold forms – a conscious political choice away from the movement of labour, goods, and finance toward an orientation to cultural particularism and closed-mindedness. The difference between right and left populisms is erased in the expressions of these affects and they achieve unity in their rejection of a liberal consensus based on reason and balance.

Following the logic of this approach, Russia emerges as the leading foreign ally of domestic illiberal forces. Subverting the natural liberal foundations of the West, it affirms its own nature – the authoritarian identification of one-person leadership and a submissive population. Alongside its satellites in the Populist International, the Kremlin undermines western civilization and world order. A new condition of turbulence and chaos replaces this order, which had guaranteed a stable and flourishing world – a condition in which all previous ideas lose their sense and connectivity. Truth becomes Post-Truth, and the West, Post-West.

In this schema of things Putin appears as a permanent revolutionary[3] in the most primitive understanding of this term: he represents a purely destructive force, without offering anything in return. One could say that this image of Putin as revolutionary has become commonplace in western media. A recent issue of the New Yorker exclaimed that it is Putin himself who is behind the Trump “revolution” in the United States.[4]

Putin strikes a blow against democracy: he devalues its foundations (liberal values) by using its formal contradictions against it. The very idea of democracy is being eroded to a mere mechanism to express the will of the masses, deprived of responsibility and common sense. The revolt against the elites led by Russia bears a primarily cultural and moral character, nihilistically rejecting everything that is essentially western: the common European home, multiculturalism, and free trade. The unity of European order is lost while democracy turns to its dark side: ochlocracy, or arbitrary mob rule.

It was emblematic that Russia itself was absent from the Munich Report in the list of those countries risking political turbulence; indeed, on the contrary, predictability rules there. In contrast to the West, Russian authoritarian power is seen as fully corresponding to national identity, commanding widespread support from below. Putin’s Russia appears not so much as non-West, but rather as the anti-West, the embodiment of this rejection of the liberal and humanist tradition. In this guise Russia loses its national borders and turns into a global partisan (in the spirit of Carl Schmitt), shaking the foundations of world order in the destructive spirit of the times. It is difficult not to observe how this Manichaean picture of a confrontation between these two principles finds its mirror-like reflection in the legitimisation of the world mission of Putin’s Russia.

The revolution turned upside down.

Ten years ago at the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin gave a famous speech in which he issued a challenge to the model of the unipolar world. This world of “one master, one sovereign” represents a threat not only to its neighbours, but also “for the sovereign itself, because it destroys it from within.”[5] Such a rupture with this model is moral in nature since the West has rejected its own identity for the sake of coercing other countries to submit to the universality of its principles.

Just as the West hurls the accusation against Putin of organising a revolution in the US, Putin himself has long made the criminalisation of revolution an integral part of his ideological agenda. According to the Russian propaganda line, any revolution has, primarily, a foreign source. Even now the centenary of the events of 1917 is used by the official media to get across to the country’s population the simple notion that all revolutions are generously financed from abroad. In this sense the Russian October, the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian Maidan have much in common. Violent upheavals represent, above all, a dangerous technology, one component of which is comprised of its toxic effect on mass consciousness. The confrontation with America proceeds through, amongst other things, a resistance to regime change, which sows false hopes with the consequence that chaos and violence will only intensify.

If Russia represents itself as the pole of reason and tradition, then the western elites represent revolutionary forces which, like the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, wish to transform human nature and force humanity to worship new false gods. Such a revolutionary religion is intent on replacing traditional values and verges on dictatorship – an uncompromising one blinded by the dogmatic violence of the minority over the majority, thus contradicting democracy with a mechanism consisting of its antithesis.

It’s as though Putin is intervening in the name of all those who are not ready to sacrifice their identity and authentic freedom for the sake of a liberal chimera. He addresses himself above the heads of the elites, who are gripped by revolutionary madness, to the indigenous populations, the genuine everyman who wishes to live in accordance with their own historical nature. By predicting the destruction of the sovereign, Putin helps the West save itself and its own identity.

In such a fashion, not only do both sides portray each other as the revolutionary wreckers of order (Post-Order), but they produce competing versions of the Post-West; for Russia and its right-wing associates from the Populist international the West loses its authentic foundations – Christianity, the traditional family and racial homogeneity. From this perspective, the admirers of today’s Russia, such as Pat Buchanan, the American paleo-conservative and author of the bestseller The Death of the West, see Putin as helping to restore an “authentic West” (one that has been debased by the subversive spiritual revolution of the cultural Marxists headed by that crazy Professor Marcuse).

It is difficult not to observe how both worldviews (the Russian and the Western ones) approach mirror-like reflections of each other. Both of them are in need of precisely that image of their opponent but also use a similar language to describe each other.

What does “sovereign democracy” denote?

For the official Russian representatives this fear of the ‘Post-West’ condition is a hopeful sign. At the last Munich Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proclaimed: “I hope that [the world] will choose a democratic world order – a Post-West one – in which each country is defined by its sovereignty.”[6] Sovereignty, one of the key categories of the Kremlin’s philosophy, is understood more broadly as the natural identity of the popular spirit and political power, unmediated by any false universal values imposed from outside. Thus, not only does sovereignty not contradict democracy but it represents its key premise. The source of power must be located within the country and not beyond its borders – it is precisely this that makes democracy sovereign, imbuing an abstract principle with concrete content.

For the whole 17 years of his uncontested rule, Putin and his circle have constantly insisted that their regime be called a democracy. Moreover, any differences that may exist between this regime and widely recognized democratic standards are evidence of its organic, sovereign nature. The Post-Western world about which Lavrov speaks is a world in which sovereignty represents that very right to call oneself a “democracy whose principles cannot be reduced to a common denominator. But then why struggle for the right to call oneself a democracy in the Post-Western world where each sovereign can now choose their own fitting name?”

Even today, three years after the beginning of military aggression in Ukraine and the confrontation with the USA and the EU, the Russian regime continues to maintain the appearance of a form of democratic ritual. The presidential elections, which should take place in March 2018, in all likelihood will follow the strict canons of Russian “imitation democracy”[7]: the rivals of Vladimir Putin will be the unchanged leaders of the parliamentary parties, and the procedure itself is to be “clean”, that is, free from evident falsifications and administrative pressure on the electors.

Who is this imitation aimed at? And why does the regime so strictly reproduce its key features, avoiding its transformation not only into an open military dictatorship but even into a classical Bonapartist regime in which the ties between the rulers and its people are effected with the aid of referendums designed to prove the people’s trust in the leader? One of the main reasons is the attempt of Putin’s Russia to maintain that which a number of authors have called the “standard package”[8], required for its symbolic inclusion in the Western order. The wish of Putin to appear as a legitimate ruler, a President democratically elected in accordance with the Constitution, remains unchanged even today when the rhetorical gauntlet has been thrown down to the West. Moreover, an important place in these rhetorical assaults is accorded to the accusation of hypocrisy, that of being effectively at variance with their declared principles.

Constantly repeating accusations of duplicity, Russia has often justified its actions, directing against the West its own arguments. Thus, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was explained away by the need to prevent the genocide of the Russian-speaking population (in the same way that NATO justified its military support for the Kosovar Albanians in 1999). Earlier in 2008 this very same argument was used as justification by Russia in the military conflict with Georgia and the subsequent recognition of the independent separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Currently, the Russian participation on the side of Assad in the Syrian civil war is justified in strict accordance with the rhetoric of the War on Terror, which Putin adopted during the days of his friendship with George W. Bush.

The tone that Russian diplomacy has used in the course of its worsening relations with the West in recent years has become ever more ironic and includes elements of parody. Acting in the general semantic space of the Western standard package, Russia has emphasized the contradictions between the accepted significance of its terminology and their concrete usage. This device creates a humorous effect and irritates the addressee who recognizes himself in a crooked mirror. Such parody remains today the main and only technique of the manifestation of Russian sovereignty.

It’s worth noting that the irony it directs against the West to highlight the contradictions of its position successfully continues to disorient a significant section of the western Left. As the matter stands there is no available alternative position that could equally oppose the contemporary exposure of hypocritical Western imperialism by Russia.

A fractured world

In his now classical text on Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson characterizes the phenomenon as an erosion of a temporary continuity.[9] The modern hangs over things like a nightmare, reminding one of a lost common language: the connections between the past, present and future. In its place there emerges a pastiche deprived of the irony of parody. Language ceases to work, not leaving any room for the play of irony. The current offensive of the Post-West, in this case, turns out to be the abject failure of Post-Soviet Russia and its sovereign democracy.

Reality has already outpaced the gloomy forecast of the Munich Report since the unity of the West as a project connected with certain political and financial institutions has already fallen apart. Neoliberal politics, the European Union and the power of its institutions, the whole state of things in whose defense the enlightened reason of the Munich experts have come, is losing democratic legitimacy before our eyes. But those illiberal forces ready to replace them are unable to propose anything except the maintenance of previous relations using new methods.

This is the real nature of the “Post” condition: the decline of political language wherein Putin and Trump speak in the name of the exploited while the authors of the Munich Manifesto speak in the name of freedom and reason. Neither its unity nor its lost order can be restored by addressing oneself to identity – neither in the liberal nor in the illiberal-parodic variant. That which genuinely unites people on both sides of this illusory border between the West and the non-West is the continuing growth of inequality, the chasm between the ruling elites and the majority – the alienation from political participation.
Perhaps today century-old internationalist Marxism can attain an exclusive significance for us. It has nothing in common with the recognition of cultural diversity or the speculative critique of the unipolar world, but it does address itself to the unity of the world of the exploited and those who have lost out. It is that which could be called, following Immanuel Wallerstein, an “anti-universalist universalism”,[10] rejecting colonial violence not in favour of particularism and the rhetoric of the “clash of civilizations”, but through the affirmation of authentic equality and solidarity.


[1] Munich Security Conference (MSC) was established as an annual meeting in 1963, at the Cold war’s height, in order to bring together policy makers and experts from the West (especially from NATO members). The task of the conference was to discuss the actual moment and common strategy. In 1990th, after proclaimed “end of the history”, representatives of Eastern Europe and post-Soviet states were invited as well. In 2007, at the MSC meeting, Vladimir Putin made his famous speech, in which he confronted the model of “unipolar world”, dominated by USA. https://www.securityconference.de/en/about/history/

[2] https://www.securityconference.de/en/discussion/munich-security-report/munich-security-report-2017/

[3] A fear of permanent revolution which appears as a synonym for chaos is also characteristic of the Russian leader. Putin has attacked “Trotskyism” on numerous occasions; using the term as synonymous with all that disrupts plans and increases unpredictability. In 2014 the author dedicated a separate article to an analysis of the Putinist “Trotskyist myth”- The Perpetual “Trotskyist” Conspiracy https://therussianreader.com/2014/11/21/budraitskis-trotskyist-conspiracy/

[4] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/trump-putin-and-the-new-cold-war

[5] Ibid.

[6] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/sergey-lavrov-hope-world-chooses-post-west-order-170218134909381.html

[7] A term borrowed from Dmitry Furman https://newleftreview.org/II/54/dmitri-furman-imitation-democracies

[8] https://newleftreview.org/II/94/perry-anderson-incommensurate-russia

[9] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism and Consumer Society http://art.ucsc.edu/sites/default/files/Jameson_Postmodernism_and_Consumer_Society.pdf

[10] Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Immanuel Wallerstein, Etienne Balibar. Verso, 2010. pp.29-36

Vladan Jeremić

Vladan Jeremić

Vladan Jeremić and Rena Rädle are artists whose artistic practice comprises drawing, text, photography,installation, and video. Since 2002 they have been developing a joint artistic practice that explores the overlapping space between art and activism. In their artistic work they focus on the contradictions that exist in society today and research, with artistic means, emancipatory potentials. Their recent exhibitions have included shows in New York, Mexico City, and across Europe.

Ilya Budraitskis

Ilya Budraitskis

Ilya Budraitskis is a historian, activist and curator based in Moscow, Russia. He is on the editorial boards of several print and online publications, including Moscow Art Magazine, Openleft and LeftEast. With Ekaterina Degot and Marta Dziewanska, Budraitskis co-edited and authored the book Post-Post-Soviet?: Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade (University of Chicago Press, 2013). He is also the co-editor and author (with Arseniy Zhilyaev) of the book Pedagogical Poem (Marsilio, 2014).