Lost in Translation: Russia's Political Lexicon

Among Western pundits and Russia watchers, Russia receives very poor marks in the areas of liberal democracy, civil society and freedom of expression.

Among Western pundits and Russia watchers, Russia receives very poor marks in the areas of liberal democracy, civil society and freedom of expression. The statist regime that Vladimir Putin has installed over the past four years is something, according to two Western academics, "between dictatorship and democracy."

For most in the Western media, this description is too generous -- "growing authoritarianism" appears to be the most popular appellation. However, most Russians do not feel this way. In fact, most Russians easily understand the words of the West's political lexicon -- the meanings are just different and evolving. 

It is very unfortunate that many who write on Russia, especially during Putin's tenure as president, have little interest in interrogating how political ideas are employed by many Russians about their own country.  Journalists, in particular, fall victim to extraordinary over-simplification of Russian politics - seeing and writing on Russia as if it were a poor reflection of what they believe exists in Western polities.  

Even more disheartening is the fact that many journalists (and/or their editors) fail to reflect upon how Western societies are changing. If they did, Russia's political evolution might not be so "disappointing." The West's normative political lexicon is changing, but the thought of a different and changing political lexicon in Russia as a possibility is strangely and arrogantly ignored. 

The following is an abridged thumbnail sketch of Russia's usage of similar Western political terms. Presentation of these terms does not assume, like most Russia-watchers do, that Russian society is an unsophisticated and differentiated herd of mindless individuals. Class today does not particularly divide Russia, though membership of a status group does. Thus, the following definitions encompass general attitudes in the broadest sense, recognizing that different status groups certainly have nuanced attitudes towards politics.  

Russian political definitions will, of course, surprise and disappoint many. However, the sooner it is seen that political terms can be understood differently, the sooner Russia's current political trajectory can be put into perspective -- instead of being unreflectively judged and dismissed.

Authoritarianism: A recent commitment on the part of the authorities to establish "law and order," with "order" considered more important than law. Strong authoritarian rule is welcomed over what many called "market economy" and "democracy" of the 1990s.

Bolsheviks: A group of political radicals that destroyed the Tsarist Empire and accompanying political economic backwardness. The originator of Bolshevism, Vladimir Lenin, today is considered a positive historical figure in the country's recent past.

Censorship: This is the right and responsibly of the authorities to determine the quality and condition of the public sphere. Censorship has a large following, hoping to see the end of paid-for political articles in the media, ending the transmission of pornographic images during primetime television board casts, and protecting what are believed to be national values.

Capitalism: An economic system that benefits a very small minority. While not necessarily a pejorative term, it does connote extreme social and economic inequality, as well as indifference to the common good.

Civil society: This term is interpreted quite literally -- the demand that social existence should be lived without fear and violence. The state should do everything necessary to ensure that bandits, drug addicts and other social misfits do not violate the "civility" of ordinary people. The Kremlin's recent interest in who funds foreign-controlled NGOs is not only normal, but also necessary.

Cold War: The conflict that the Soviet Union did not lose, but the United States claims to have won. Many Russians consider this conflict, with Russia as the legal and historic successor of the Soviet Union, as a source of pride -- international prestige (even if it was actually feared), technical advancement and economic prosperity at home.

Communism: The economic and social system that modernized Russia and made the Soviet Union a superpower. A significant majority of Russians fondly remember this system, which conjure up feelings of greater equality, upward mobility, housing, education and medical care - all largely absent in Russia since 1991. Reflections on the communist period should not be confused with nostalgia for an imagined past. Memory of the communist past is very real.

Common good: A commitment by those in authority at present to ensure that no one is left behind. Russia's enormous natural wealth and human potential should benefit all in some fashion.

Corruption: An unfortunate practice for those who cannot afford to grease the palms of petty officialdom when confronted with the labyrinth called law. For those who can pay, this concept is the best thing about life in Russia.  Corruption is pervasive in Russia because for every bribe taker there is a queue people willing to pay a bribe.

Democracy: A political idea that created chaos for a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and used to legitimize the material gains of the few. Democracy is far from an alien concept for Russians (even by Western standards), however its official practice over the past few years hardly makes it a sacrosanct ideal that many find of value.

Demagogue: See Liberal.