- The Politics of Resentment
After the strong showing of the bizarre Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia's recent parliamentary elections, a consensus seems to be developing that Zhirinovsky is an imperialist, a fascist, and an anti-Semite, and that those who voted for his wildly misnamed Liberal [End Page 35] Democratic Party intended to support these political tendencies. Much of the alarming commentary on the election reads as though Russia was an established constitutional order in which well-defined constituencies or bodies of opinion vote for politicians whose program fits their conception of the public good. These commentators seemed further to assume that politicians say things in speeches because they plan to put these same policies into effect after they are elected. Even in the established democracies, such a view would be naive; in bewildered, chaotic Russia, it is utterly fantastic.
Most Russian voters grew up uninterested in politics and cynical about politicians to begin with. After all, they were raised under a system that displayed a stark contrast between the loftiest principles and an arbitrary and callous way of ruling. Perhaps this is one reason for Zhirinovsky's popularity; he scarcely bothers to disguise his cynicism.
The Soviet system, by constantly exhorting the people to behave better and never admitting any mistakes, transmitted the message that if things go badly, it is the people's fault, not the government's. This message gives a content to the intense class prejudice that permeates Russian society. Ordinary people have felt scorned and blamed; one of the commonest Russian working-class gestures is the cupped hand moving downwards, expressive of the concept "contempt." People who are blamed want to blame back; there is in Russia an enormous reservoir of free-floating resentment that is seeking an object.
Harnessing this resentment to a political agenda has proved difficult so far because the communist system bred political apathy: no action on your part could ever affect the behemoth that was grinding you down. Political participation takes two leaps of faith: first, that politics can in some way influence the concrete conditions of your life; second, that you can have any influence on politics. Most Russians understandably do not make either leap of faith. Without stable political parties, it is difficult to establish any connection between a vote and a policy.
I believe that much of the discussion of the December election has missed the underlying problem. The problem is less fascist politics than the absence of any genuine politics at all. Fascism you can fight, but how do you make politics appear out of nowhere?
The disintegration of the state makes it difficult for politics to deliver on its promises. Political choices will be most meaningful in the arena of provincial and city politics, an arena slighted by Yeltsin and Western diplomats alike. A sense that politics is meaningful might be created by organization and by patronage, but the universal aversion to anything that seems to smack of "neo-Bolshevism" will impede the formation of [End Page 36] parties, especially a government party capable of using patronage to hold together some sort of coherent ruling coalition.
Some of Zhirinovsky's voters do have real fascist attitudes, which are not rare in Russia. Most, however, are venting their resentments without any thought that there might be real consequences. I have noticed that supporters of Zhirinovsky often follow their announcement of this fact with a little nervous laugh, as if to say: "I know I'm being bad, but I don't care." Zhirinovsky is "bad"; he glories in it—that is part of his charm. By parading his own failures and inadequacies, moreover, as he does in his autobiography, he makes scorned people feel better.
To understand the social roots of the Zhirinovsky phenomenon, we must draw on a universe of discourse that is wider than that found in our Sovietology. The West Indian writer V.S. Naipaul in The Middle Passage describes the society of colonial Trinidad after the introduction of universal suffrage in this way:
Old attitudes persisted: the government was something removed, the local eminence was despised. The new politics were reserved for the enterprising, who had seen...