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How Russians see ‘freedom’ differently Philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov reviews the intellectual history of ‘volya’ and ‘svoboda’

Source: Meduza
Nadezhda Sokoreva

Russian culture by its very nature fosters a heightened sensitivity to limits on freedom, particularly the certain type of freedom it calls “volya.” The freedom of Western culture is structured on rights and clearly defined boundaries — a far cry from the “laws of the jungle” in the untamed wilderness. If Russia indeed values freedom, then that freedom is more of an internal expression and the freedom of spirit that can be preserved even in prison. We’ve heard about this sense of freedom from all who have endured political persecution in Russia, from young people like Egor Zhukov and to opposition politicians like Alexey Navalny. Philosopher Nikolai Plotnikov has compiled an anthology of the primary texts on freedom in Russian culture. In this special contribution to Meduza’s “Ideas” section, Plotnikov explains why most European cultures know this sense of freedom very well, despite having abandoned it long ago. He also argues why political freedom isn’t yet a key pillar in Russian political discourse.

An introduction by Maxim Trudolyubov

If we assume that Russians, in their culture and by their very nature, somehow prefer volya (free will) over svoboda (liberty), then it follows that Russian society needs authorities who can tame the popular will by force — not a government that supports liberty by cooperating with society through laws and regulations.

The author of this text is Nikolai Plotnikov, who together with Svetlana Kirshbaum created an anthology of essays on freedom in Russian culture (Diskursy svobody v rossiiskoi intellektualnoi istorii. Antologiya/Pod red. N.S. Plotnikov i S.V. Kirshbaum. M.: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2020). Advancing our understanding of the conflict between Russian volya and svoboda is one of this anthology’s achievements.

Plotnikov is a historian of philosophy and culture educated at Moscow State University, where he studied Hegel. He has worked at universities in Germany where he specialized in intellectual history and the history of ideas — a relevant and consequential field of study (not just an intellectual exercise). As this text reflects, the history of ideas can change a nation’s views on its own culture and shatter myths that may be obstructing its development.

Relative to the scholarship on freedom produced in the European tradition, the Russian tradition is perhaps less prominent but still entirely fascinating. While working on the anthology “Discourses on Freedom in Russian Intellectual History,” our main objective was to show the history of this idea, while distinguishing between the idea and the experience. Ideas simultaneously describe cultural and political experience and shape that experience. When a certain idea becomes a core value, it takes on an organizing function in public life.

Free will without freedom

One of the key subjects in understanding freedom in Russia is the relationship between the term volnost’ or volya (free will) and svoboda (freedom, liberty). Up to the end of the 18th century, the term svoboda existed primarily in the religious context as a translation from the Greek ἐλευθερία and meant liberation (salvation from sin). The word was used far less to mean freedom from slavery or servitude. Volnost is a different word with a similar definition and means а person’s self-determined act (freedom from slavery), as well as the individual’s rightful role under the law, such as the ability to enter into a legal agreement. Volya is a commonly used synonym of volnost’. For example, in decrees issued by Pugachev [the famous 18th century Cossack Ataman], you can find both the phrases “I grant you volya” and “I grant you volnost’.” When meaning freedom from slavery, volnost’ is used more frequently.

The French motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) first appeared in Russian with the term volnost’ used for liberty. If we recall Catherine the Great’s “Charter on Rights, Freedoms, and Privileges of the Russian gentry,” we see that specifically the word volnost’ is used to denote the national idea for defining public liberties. The term svoboda would appear outside religious texts only in the 19th century and would begin to dominate public discourse in the aftermath of the Decembrist Revolt in 1825. 

The term volya began to carry the social-anarchist meaning we know today only in the 19th century owing to the Narodnik populist movement. At that point, volnost’ lost its connection with the semantics of freedom. The word in its plural form remains in the Russian language only in certain expressions such as “poetic license.”

The terms volnost’ and volya nonetheless continue to be entrenched in the consciousness of educated Russians as something native, while svoboda has the feel of something translated from French. This myth comes from a period of reform in Russian history. Svoboda was the primary term used in emancipation from above. The decree abolishing serfdom uses only ideas of freedom and emancipation. Critics of the reform, including Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Ogarev, and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, arrive at both ideas and differentiate the two from each other. They articulate an organic, common-man born in the depths of society’s sense of the idea when discussing volya. When discussing svoboda, however, they emphasize the idea’s official, organized character. Thus, these two ideas enter into political conflict.

This conflict over time intensifies. On one side of the conflict are the revolutionary movement Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty) and the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). On the other side is Partiya Narodnoi Svobody (the People’s Freedom Party), also known as the cadet’s party, founded in the early 20th century to advocate structured freedom in connection mainly with reforms from above (see also Libiralnyi leksikon, a book by Irina Levontina and Alexey Shmelev).

Freedom without borders

In 1945, the philosopher and religious thinker Georgy Fedotov penned the essay “Russia and Freedom,” where he wrote:

Volya triumphs either having withdrawn from society out into the open space of the steppe, or in state rule over society, in violence perpetrated against people. Personal freedom [svoboda] is inconceivable without respect for others’ freedom.” 

Fedotov thus describes these two types of freedom and is quick to characterize Russia as “a culture of the desert, of wild nature, nomadic existence, gypsy life, wine, revelry, and fervent passion.” The concept that volya is something inherently Russian and svoboda is something Western is thus definitively established in the public sphere.

Little more than a decade later, the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), described this same juxtaposition as the opposition of negative and positive liberty, which is characteristic of Western culture as well Russian culture. Fedotov’s “revelry and fervent passion,” the renunciation of boundaries, and completely arbitrary self-determined action — that is what Berlin calls negative liberty (“freedom from”).

Berlin reasons that freedom in the original meaning of the word is in fact negative liberty (the Russian volya). There arises the question of how can freedom be manifested. The whole of the discussion on freedom comes down to the question of where to draw the boundaries on self-determined action. The logical progression of this question is an examination of a social order in which individuals can for the most part pursue their interests, life goals, and desires. That is a freedom within some structure, rather than unlimited freedom. This structure that provides a big enough space for self-determined action, yet is built on rules and standards understood by all, is called a liberal social order.

Debates over restrictions in the religious sphere (such as the right to wear a hijab in public) or in the sphere of free speech (like the right of governments and social media to restrict “inappropriate” content), all are essentially this same dialectic. The recent discussion about “de-platforming” U.S. President Donald Trump is a specific case of this overarching debate. It’s not a discussion of the right to freedom of speech as such; it’s a conversation about the legitimacy of restricting freedoms and about the principles upon which those restrictions are founded. 

How did Russia have a liberal constitution (until recently) without liberal order?

There have been various manifestos, declarations of rights, and proposed legislative reforms in Russian history, some of which have been liberal. “Constitution” is a word that has two meanings. It is a written text that states citizens’ rights and liberties. The constitution is also a structure for public interaction that guarantees the opportunity to pursue those stated liberties.

One of the texts included in our anthology (Plotnikov and Kirshbaum) is an article by Alexey Djivelegov, “Constitution and Civil Liberty” (1905), taken from “Constitutional Government” a collection dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The article argues that to guarantee individual rights, a written constitution alone is not sufficient even if it is adopted by fully democratic means. Also required is a corresponding force within society that guarantees opportunities for the principles included in the constitution to be carried out.

In Russia, the Constitution as it exists in this first and second meaning, as a rule, are in conflict with each other. This has been the case in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods of Russian history. Until the recent amendments and the “annulment” of the president’s previous terms in office, Russia had a constitution entirely acceptable for a democratic nation. There were objections concerning the powers of the executive. Yet the block of basic human rights and liberties embedded in the Constitution still stands as one of the most clearly articulated liberal democratic documents in the political history of Russia. The Constitution’s intended political order, however, was either prevented by the balance of power in Russia or was otherwise unable to develop.

As a result, despite its well-written Constitution, Russia has come to a state of affairs with a government verging on despotic. Djivelegov wrote about precisely this and cited Ferdinand Lassalle and other constitutional theorists when discussing the need to try to create societal forces that would support the political order outlined in the written constitution.

Internal freedom without external freedom

Hannah Arendt, another contemporary of Fedotov and Berlin, expanded the concept of freedom beyond the ability to speak and act without restriction, and included in freedom the ability to speak and act publicly and participate together with other citizens in public self-governance. This entails collective activism in which people take responsibility for establishing order in their civic and community engagement. Freedom in people’s private lives, according to Arendt, was not something real or praiseworthy. Although this point of view can be disputed, it is highlighted in Republicanism. It is precisely this collective political expression of freedom that is deficient in Russia’s experience. 

The Russian philosopher Alexander Meyer, for example, in his work “What is Freedom?” (1917), writes that it is unnecessary to teach freedom to a people who have just independently gained freedom. The author begins to discuss political freedom (the freedom of a society with self-determination), but then proceeds with an abrupt transition to internal, spiritual freedom and living a life of truth. This is a typical thought progression that repeats in many works, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s essay “Live Not by Lies” (1974). 

The distinction between internal and external freedom is an attribute of those societies in which there is no political framework for freedom. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas draws from history three developmental phases of the public sphere: the dominance of aristocratic authority, the bourgeois literary public sphere, and finally the formation of parliamentary parties.

In England, the transformation from something aristocratic to a literary society that views public political events through the prism of literary journals, philosophical treatises, and religious-philosophical polemics came at the turn of the 18th century. In France, this transformation would continue up until the French Revolution, and in Germany all the way up to the Revolution of 1848.

The chronology of this phase of the public sphere’s development in Germany is similar to what happened in Russia. The difference is that Russian society was ultimately never able to get much further. This is one of the reasons Russian so love romantic literature (German or connected to German) — it is a “repository of ideas” for all concepts of freedom and the political world that lasted in Russia for the entire 19th century, the early 20th century, and even throughout Perestroika. This universe of ideas and concepts includes and articulates the notions of inner freedom and freedom of will and thought, which can be restrained by nothing — not political persecution or even imprisonment. Hence, the notion of the poet, the writer, and the artist, and the enduring relevance of a life of creativity.

This ideal is still relevant because of the still incomplete third phase in the evolution of the public sphere (the formation of political parties and the polity) that arrived in Russia in the early 20th century and again during Perestroika. It was cut short and replaced with something even Habermas did not foresee in his model, what some researchers refer to as an “acclimating” public sphere: when everybody applauds at party conventions.

Freedom without property

This brings us to another curiosity: there is very little in Russian discourse on freedom about protecting private property and supporting private initiatives. It is completely representative of the circumstances that we were unable to find a single text for our anthology that clearly conceptualized the freedoms of property rights and private enterprise in an economic dimension.

In my view, this is one of the markers indicating that the development of the discourse on freedom in Russia is still in the literary phase. The conversation is primarily about freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, and freedom of public dialogue. Occasionally, authors get into the rights of assembly, public demonstration, and creative expression, all of which belong to the realm of freedom of opinion and inner freedom.

All topics related to economic rights, property rights, rights to private enterprise, and so on remain sidelined. This is no coincidence. It was only the isolated case that any fortune in pre-revolutionary Russia, as Richard Pipes wrote, was acquired by strictly economic means. In dynastic Russia, there was some small private enterprise at a grassroots level, but large fortunes, as a rule, were a symbiosis of private enterprise and the state. Right up until the 1990s, that is until the very end of the 20th century, the subject of economic rights never even made the agenda.

Even in the discussion around the so-called new ethics, Russian society sees things through the eyes of literary-culture consciousness. It views the political world through the lens of the literary and cultural tradition, without any consideration that the public sphere in the West has gone further in its evolution, giving birth to new ideas and new role models. Attempts by liberal-minded leaders in the Russian arts and culture (like Konstantin Bogomolov) to enter into a “Western discussion,” therefore, sound like something in the West that would only be possible in ultra-conservative circles.

Text by Nikolai Plotnikov

Translation by Peter Bertero