Dmitry Shlapentokh

Jan 12, 2017




The election victory of Republican candidate predictably led to a proliferation of thousands of articles, including many analyzing the implications of Trump’s election for U.S.-Russia relations. Most of them were quite predictable – they seemed to indicate that Trump, an authoritarian isolationist, finds in Russian President Vladimir Putin a similar-minded person. Based on that, the two leaders might easily find common ground.

Still, what’s most important might not be what the Kremlin thinks about Trump and his election victory, but rather the views of some segments within the Russian intelligentsia that are usually regarded as conservative. Their ideals provide not just an insight into the views of various segments of Russian society – they also help one understand how Russians interpret the meaning of the word “populism.” This term has been frequently used, not just to characterize Trump supporters, but also structurally similar movements and trends throughout Europe.


Trump’s victory led to a response from a contributor of Zavtra, one of the leading conservative, nationalistic, if odious, publications in Russia. Zavtra has been staunchly anti-American throughout the newspaper’s entire life [This newspaper combines ultranationalist and Communist views and is typically considered a media outlet of Russia’s extreme right – Editor’s note].

The problem with the U.S. was not just what the contributors to the publication regarded as America’s attempt to marginalize Russia globally, but also the pitfalls of American capitalism, which they blame for impoverishing millions of Russians.

They also bemoan the passivity not just of average Russians plundered by the elite, but the passivity of the masses all over the world, who are unable or unwilling to defend their rights. However, Trump’s victory changed their minds.

After Trump’s victory, the newspaper published several articles in which the authors praised what they had never done before – the U.S., democracy, and Americans. In fact, they juxtaposed Americans to Russians. One of the authors stated that he was truly surprised by Americans. Indeed, he noted Trump was vilified by the entire American mass media, and that President Barack Obama himself joined the anti-Trump team. Still, Trump prevailed.

Nothing like this could have happened in Russia. In fact, Putin only needs to appear on the same campaign poster with a candidate for any position, and the candidate is surely to be elected. It is not just ordinary Russians who behave in this way. A good part of the Russian intelligentsia is not very different from members of the working class or middle class in cities around the nation.

The author of another article in Zavtra makes fun of the Kremlin propagandists who present the U.S. as the source of all of Russia’s problems. He wondered what these people would do right now and how they would move from presenting the U.S. as the source of all of Russia’s problems to an almost ideal country.

The conclusion is clear: Whereas Russians behave like docile sheep, Americans are not so easily led astray. In short, their choice of Trump (and not his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton) indicates that democracy indeed works. People can indeed impose their will, regardless of the wishes of the elite. Thus, Russians should imitate Americans.

While the contributors to Zavtra, at least some of them, see in America’s election a great example of democracy, the liberals, including, for example, the contributors to Ekho Moskvy, a well-known liberal radio station based in Moscow, looked at the Trump election victory from a quite different perspective.


For them, Trump’s election demonstrated the simplistic ignorance of Americans, who could be so easily manipulated by political messages like “Make America Great Again”. Trump’s victory indicates that the political will of the masses, regardless of place of residency, is not the manifestation of democracy but ugly populism. As a matter of fact, they implicitly lamented that Trump-style “populism” has spread in the West.

Still, those who condemn “Trumpism” as a manifestation of “populism” – clearly a negative phenomenon in their reading – and praise “democracy” – clearly a positive phenomenon for them – do not elaborate on the difference between them. Their problems could well be understood as meaning that the words “democracy” and “populism” are actually the same.

“Democracy,” a word of Greek origin, and “populism,” which stems from the Latin term, mean the same: the rule of the people. But how, in the narrative of Russian liberals, has “democracy” been transformed into ugly “populism?”


The answer might be found in pre-revolutionary France. The peasants, as they were imagined by the French elite of that time, were joyful, well-fed, dancing and singing happily in the village square. The French elite could have well said that the ancien régime was indeed a peculiar form of “democracy” where the benign elite enjoyed the full support of the masses.


Still, historians know that the life of the French populace was hardly pleasant, and when it exploded during the French Revolution, it hardly pleased the elite. And at that point, the mass movement transformed into ugly “populism.” This explains the sharp differences in interpretation of Trump’s victory by conservatives and liberals, and the op-ed writers from Zavtra and Ekho Moskvy.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.


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