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Our liberal dream is over

While Putin's invasion challenges not only Ukraine's democracy but our own democratic system, we have found ourselves in a war between truth and lies

Paul Mason’s first brush with post-Soviet reality, in Moscow, February 1992. Photo: Paul Mason

On the plinth of the statue in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, in the freezing cold, stand beleaguered Russian leftwingers holding banners and surrounded by police. It’s February 1992 and snow is swirling. Inflation is running at 2,500%. The streets are filled with elderly people trying to sell their last belongings for cash.

Among the protesters is a bloke in an unfeasibly large fur hat giving out leaflets entitled: “Revolution is the only way out of the crisis”. His name is Paul Mason.

In Kyiv last month, as we ducked and dived between tense meetings with ministers and activists, with war hours away, I remembered it was exactly 30 years since I had my first brush with post-Soviet reality. It was not a success.

I had gone, two weeks after the dissolution of the USSR, with a small group of European leftwing activists to see if we could pull together an anti-Stalinist labour movement out of the dissident left. These were the anarchists, Trotskyists and human rights activists who had begun to network in the last days of the Soviet Union, when “networking” meant meeting in a coffee shop under surveillance by the KGB.

Despite a crash course in Russian, I could not understand anything. And we were followed, photographed and taped by the KGB from the second we arrived to the second we left. But that wasn’t the main problem.

Society was in a state of absolute collapse. When we took taxis, the driver would stop 100 metres from the pickup point to collect a colleague armed with an iron bar, just to make sure we didn’t rob him. I lived in a wrecked student dormitory, where the rooms of Vietnamese and African students had been trashed by racists.

When we took to the streets, in a massive demonstration against Boris Yeltsin’s privatisation of the economy, the sad fact was that the dominant voices beside us were Stalin nostalgics and, in the wings, the nationalist right. I saw elderly generals link arms and push through a line of young riot cops. But ultimately the riot cops won, and so did the oligarchs and the Western capitalists who decided to strip Russia of its wealth and dignity.

Fast-forward 30 years and post-soviet society is once again in crisis. But this is a different world. The young people I saw in Kyiv have a totally altered perception of the possibilities from those who lived through the collapse of the USSR.

They are Western-oriented and they are networked. What they protested for in 2014, and what they’re fighting for now, with Molotov cocktails in hand and white plastic in their ears, is the right to be European. To them, this is merely the continuation of something that has been going on for eight years. It’s us that now have to stumble, blinking, into the light.

What it felt like in 1992 to emerge into the whirlwind of marketisation, information overload and insecure work was captured by Victor Pelevin in his novel Babylon.

Soviet life had been depicted as an unchanging eternity. But for Pelevin’s anti-hero, Babylen Tatarsky, suddenly it was gone. “No sooner had eternity disappeared than Tatarsky found himself in the present, and it turned out that he knew absolutely nothing about the world…”

Now it’s our turn to pass from what seemed like a liberal-democratic “eternity” to a present full of danger and uncertainty.

Anyone with the remotest residual belief in the “end of history”, the triumph of liberal democracy, the permanence of a rules-based global order, the universality of human rights, the unthinkability of war – saw it all go out of the window on 24 February.

Vladimir Putin has unleashed not just a war of aggression on Ukraine, but a war to cancel international law. Putin’s war is not just on Ukraine’s democracy, but on our democratic system and values. I am surrounded by lifelong socialists and progressives who just cannot process this. They keep returning to their old obsessions – Boris Johnson’s lies, the injustice of austerity, the hypocrisy of the West over Palestine and Yemen – and though these were good obsessions, they are now the wrong obsessions.

Everyone who framed their political assumptions around the eternal existence of an order based on the international rule of law, a global marketplace for talent, semiconductors and energy, and a stable geopolitics, will be thrown into confusion.

As Pelevin’s novel recounts, those who survive are the ones who adapt quickest. And the key to adaptation is to accept what has failed. To accept that this horrible emergent reality is not going to subside anytime soon.

I failed in Russia – so badly that I did not go there again until 2018. Now we have all failed – the left, the centre, the right, the journalists, the pundits, the defence boffins. The recriminations can come later, but, with the attack on Ukraine’s democracy, a systemic conflict has begun between democracy and dictatorship, truth and lies, naked power and the rule of international law.

As I fled Kyiv, waving a brick-sized wad of currency at the woman selling tickets for the last plane to Istanbul, I had to acknowledge: I have failed again. I remembered the words of Neville Chamberlain on the outbreak of war in 1939. Quoted verbatim they’re probably a good place for all of us to begin from – even for those of us who warned about Putin long ago:

“Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much.”

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