Article about Russia's 'imperial complex' leads to scandal and solidarity

The director of the prestigious Moscow U.S. and Canada Studies Institute was fired after he published an essay in which he lambasted Russia's 'imperial complex' and the 'myths' of the Kremlin-propaganda. Following a smear campaign on state television, his colleagues published a letter of solidarity and called tv-host Solovyov a propagandist in the style of Goebbels. Meduza reviews the remarkable affair.

 screen shot 09 06 23 at 05.16 pmValery Garbuzov lost his job after writing that Russia is hostage of its own imperial complex. Screenshot from YouTube

Valery Garbuzov joined the U.S. and Canada Studies Institute (ISKRAN) in 2000 and became its director in 2016. The institute is considered one of Russia’s leading think tanks on U.S. matters, particularly during the Soviet period when it exerted significant influence on Moscow’s foreign policy. Today, ISKRAN employs more than 130 people, including 85 research experts. 'By the founder’s decision,' Garbuzov was replaced on September 1, 2023, by Sergey Kislitsyn, the 33-year-old head of the Center for the Study of Strategic Planning at the National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

ISKRAN’s press service directly linked Garbuzov’s dismissal to his August 29 article, 'On the Lost Illusions of a Bygone Era,' published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

What did Garbuzov say in his contentious essay?

Garbuzov argues that 'expansionism' was fundamental to the formation of the Russian state and continues to shape its foreign policy today in the 'tragic pattern' of collapsed empires failing to reconcile with diminished stature. He characterizes this as a typical post-imperial development, albeit with a unique delay in Russia that largely concealed its 'menacing character' for some 30 years. 

Perhaps even more controversially, Garbuzov says Russia’s contemporary ruling elite exploits anti-American 'myths' to keep itself in power. In the past, writes Garbuzov, the Soviet regime 'plunged society into a world of illusions' built on the utopia of 'global revolution' and the dogma of 'capitalism’s general crisis.' Contemporary Russian state propaganda has resurrected these old myths in rhetoric about supposed Western decline and resistance to globalization and 'Anglo-Saxon' dominance.

'Russia is hostage to its own imperial complex'

Garbuzov says the United States and China are the only two remaining 'informal empires,' but Russia maintains its own 'special orbit' as a 'hostage of its own imperial complex.' This, he argues, explains Moscow’s current foreign policy 'and the problems it inflicts on the world.' Garbuzov compares the Kremlin’s attitude today to the frustrations of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, who struggled to 'overcome their imperial feelings' in WWII’s aftermath. 

Not only is Russia’s current mythology dogmatic and illusionary, says Garbuzov, but it’s also based on an 'unstable and eclectic' 'jumble' of conservative ideas that are too antiquated to suit the country’s modern society or serve as a 'timeless and universal' global platform for Moscow. Garbuzov warns that the embrace of Tsarist notions of power has conflated the ruler with the nation, robbing the country of its more lasting identity:

'The nation’s current minions of authoritarianism (similar to the satraps of ancient Eastern despotisms that have receded into oblivion) apparently completely without historical consciousness, shamelessly, tenderly, and sincerely identify the head of the state with the state itself — the country’s temporary ruler with the great national and historical constant.'

The scandal

Russian state propagandists recognized Garbuzov’s essay for the indictment it is and responded by dragging him in the media and online. Pundit Vladimir Solovyov has been particularly outspoken in his criticism, attacking Garbuzov in detail during his August 30 evening television broadcast. On his Telegram channel, Solovyov has also advocated a financial audit of the U.S. and Canada Studies Institute, encouraged others to scrub Garbuzov’s other work for 'echoes of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta article,' and suggested that the U.S. State Department will defend him before an American university eventually offers him a job.

On September 5, Garbuzov returned to Nezavisimaya Gazeta with another essay where he thanked his colleagues for their support against the harassment and 'use of administrative artillery' he’s faced since writing the article on Russia’s 'lost illusions.' Garbuzov stressed that his earlier essay, while written for a wide audience in the style of 'political journalism,' nevertheless reflects ideas that have appeared in hundreds of academic articles by Russian historians, political scientists, and sociologists. 'Don’t be lazy; go and read them!' he told the 'false patriots' who accuse him of kowtowing to foreign academic trends.

'I myself am not a secret Western intelligence agent and I'm not an Anglo-Saxon spy or a domestic enemy of my own Fatherland'

Garbuzov denies any connections to NATO, emphasizing his personal roots in the cities of Pskov and St. Petersburg, and defends his time as a Fulbright scholar as a normal experience the Russian government once supported. 'And I myself am not a secret Western intelligence agent; I’m not an Anglo-Saxon spy; and I’m not a domestic enemy of my own Fatherland,' wrote Garbuzov, adding that his critics are apparently unaware that the 'open and contentious nature' of knowledge in the humanities 'plays the role of oxygen' in the generation of new ideas.

Defending his colleagues, Garbuzov wrote:

'The institute’s research team has never been and is not now a nest of foreign spies or a cell of cunning Carbonari [revolutionaries active in Italy during the early 1800s] making secret plots against the Soviet state or its successors.'

In this second article, Garbuzov also further developed some of the arguments he raised earlier about how myths can bolster political regimes (at least briefly): '[…] myths, created at different times and introduced into the mass public consciousness, contribute (along with other factors) to a temporary social consolidation around the current authorities to achieve a specific goal. Russia’s 20th-century history and present realities demonstrate this well.'

Garbuzov insists that 'stamping out Western influence' in Russia is no more feasible than erasing the impact of Russian culture in the West. Looking to the future, he says 'a different time' will come eventually, and today’s animosity will change. 'Evolution is inevitable, including in this sphere,' Garbuzov explains, adding, 'I hope this isn’t a subversive thought.'

Colleagues speak up

screen shot 09 06 23 at 05.13 pmVladimir Solovyov smearing Valety Garbuzov in his evening show. Screeshot from YouTube

Also on September 5, former colleagues at the U.S. and Canada Studies Institute released a statement in support of Garbuzov, denouncing the 'unbridled smear campaign' unleashed against him and arguing that [pro-Kremlin tv propagandist] Vladimir Solovyov’s comments 'are built on blatant lies and presented in the form of disgusting, classic Goebbels propaganda.' ISKRAN researchers warned that such defamation is an assault on scholars everywhere in Russia:

'The false, groundless, and shamelessly exaggerated allegations against ISKRAN’s academic team and its director are nothing more than a crude, incompetent attempt to undermine and discredit a Russian school of American studies that it’s taken decades to build and establish around the world.'

'Vladimir Solovyov’s comments are built on blatant lies and presented in the form of disgusting, classic Goebbels propaganda.'

Within a few hours, the ISKRAN team’s statement disappeared from Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s website, though archived copies are still available elsewhere. At the time of this writing, Garbuzov’s two articles are still published in the newspaper.

A source familiar with the situation at ISKRAN told the newspaper Vedomosti that the new director, Sergey Kislitsyn, might begin 'modernizing the institute' to raise academic publication rates and improve the organization’s financial condition. The source claimed that the incident with Garbuzov’s article may become a catalyst for changes at ISKRAN but isn’t the reason for them.

Garbuzov told Vedomosti that he doesn’t know if his replacement will keep him employed at the institute in another role.

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