At a time when idealism in politics seems like a naïve fairy tale, a symposium held this week in Washington explored the moral foundations of some key contemporary events: anti-authoritarian revolutions and movements in places as diverse as Russia, China, and the Middle East. Yet the fascinating discussion revealed both the potential and the limitations of morality-based politics.
The morality in question is not one of sexual or religious norms but of dignity, freedom, and civic responsibility. On a strikingly relevant note, the conference at the American Enterprise Institute opened with an announcement by its organizer, Russia scholar Leon Aron, that echoed these very themes: One speaker, Moscow journalist Yevgenia Albats, had canceled due to a wave of police raids on the homes of opposition activists before a major protest rally. Under the circumstances, she had told Aron, personal and professional ethics required her to stay.
Aron, who has just published a book called “Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991,” argues that, whatever economic and social factors may have contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union, moral issues were key to that revolution. The push for moral renewal, used by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformers against communist hardliners, later led to the collapse of the regime itself. The honor and dignity of the individual were essential issues, as was pursuit of truth and atonement for the sins of Stalin-era state-sponsored mass murder. In the age of Gorbachev’s glasnost, “the moral became the political,’’ said Russian journalist and opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza.
A revival of those passions in Russia can be seen in today’s protests against the Kremlin. Civic dignity has been the unifying slogan for protesters of various political stripes. According to Kara-Murza, “People are tired of being treated like cattle.” Vladimir Putin’s decision to reclaim the presidency after the transparent charade of handing it over to chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev was the trigger point: “That was beyond political; that was an insult on a human level.”
Despite Putin’s victory in an election marred by fraud, the protests are not ending. Putin has irretrievably lost the support of the Russian middle class, and a new democratic transformation on the wreckage of an authoritarian regime is an increasingly real possibility — though Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Lilia Shevtsova warned that the result could be a catastrophic implosion rather than a peaceful transition.
Aron argued that the “quest for dignity” is by no means unique to Russia; it was also the driving force of the recent rebellion against repressive regimes in the Arab world, and has been the passion that animates Chinese dissidents. Yet the talks at the conference also highlighted the fragility of moral revolution. American journalist and historian Anne Applebaum noted that Soviet reform’s initial “obsession” with rediscovering suppressed historical truths soon gave way to profound indifference to history as day-to-day economic and social problems grew more urgent. With Putin’s ascension, the government began to promote a politicized version of history that emphasized the greatness and primacy of the state.
One of the Arab speakers, Hassan Mneimneh, former chairman of the Iraq Memory Foundation, noted that while human dignity has been a central goal of the Arab Spring, the effort to “look in the mirror and critically assess one’s past” has been lacking; instead, the tendency has been to blame external forces, whether America or Zionism, for domestic problems. This mentality is very similar to the one that flourished in Russia under Putin.
It is also clear that while moral passions may be enough to overthrow a repressive regime, they provide little guidance on how to run a democracy. In post-Communism Russia, many liberals staked their hopes on Boris Yeltsin; the result was a corrupt, ineffective government followed by the restoration of authoritarianism. In the Arab world, Islamist parties with their own repressive agenda are capitalizing on the victory of pro-freedom forces. Nor is there a clear answer to what the West can and should do to aid freedom abroad.
Still, the time when regimes could rule by brute force without even a veneer of moral legitimacy is quickly passing. Whether the future belongs to democracy, it seems, depends on whether human rights and accountability for the past can remain a cornerstone of revolution.