Why the Kremlin Reads Zizek

Slovenia’s celebrity Marxist theoretician Slavoj Zizek gained a new and unexpected endorsement on Saturday. A leading expert on interpreting philosophers from Marx to Lacan to Hegel, Zizek is not a newcomer to Russian politics. He has written on the war in Ukraine, calling “Putin’s foreign policy…a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line,” but also questioning Europe’s capacity to support “emancipatory politics” in Ukraine. Zizek also conducted a public correspondence with Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova while she was in prison. These prison letters, which traded views on activism and subversion, were recently published under the title Comradely Greetings.

Zizek’s status as a leading light of the radical left and his relationship with Pussy Riot made it all the more unexpected when Alexey Pushkov, chair of the Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, tweeted a quote from Zizek along with a short commentary. “Fundamentalism is a reaction…to the flaw of liberalism, and this is why it is again and again generated by liberalism,” Pushkov tweeted, quoting Zizek. What did one of the most prominent backers of Vladimir Putin’s adventurist foreign policy and conservative domestic politics find so interesting in a radical theoretician? And what does this tell us about the state of political ideas in Russia more generally?

The context of Zizek’s quote about liberalism and fundamentalism was the killing of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, who Pushkov has criticized for their willingness to criticize and insult religious believers. Zizek’s article on Charlie Hebdo, published early January in the New Statesman, argued that liberalism was in part to blame for the type of religious fundamentalism that leads to terrorism. Zizek’s rationale was that fundamentalism emerges from liberalism’s refusal to embrace revolutionary demands. “Is the rise of radical Islamism not exactly correlative to the disappearance of the secular Left in Muslim countries,” Zizek asked, implying that if radical leftist movements had succeeded, fundamentalism would not have taken off. As an example, Zizek cited Pakistan’s Swat valley, arguing that the Taliban has taken advantage of divides between landless tenants and feudal overlords. Because Western liberals have backed the feudal forces in their fight against extremism, Zizek argues, the conflict between landowners and landless workers continues to breed extremism. By backing reactionary forces, liberalism has only itself to blame.

What exactly did Pushkov find appealing in this argument? It is unlikely that the expropriation of Pakistan’s feudal barons was at the top of his list, nor the embrace of revolutionary politics more generally. Indeed, Pushkov and Zizek take a very different attitude toward speech and obscenity more generally. Where Pushkov has embraced ‘traditional’ values and crusaded against gay rights, Zizek regularly uses obscenity to provoke his readers. The copy of Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf sitting on my bookshelf has, on its back cover, an image of Zizek lying on a couch with a tasteless portrait of a naked woman prominently displayed above him. Zizek is hardly a natural ally for conservative politics in Russia.

One the one hand, one could interpret Pushkov’s citation of Zizek as…

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