Eastern Europe’s ‘superfluous men’ living in wrong historical moment?


Russian nineteenth-century literature famously had a string of leading characters, the best known being Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who were called superfluous men, notes Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe. Eastern European politics currently seems to have a lot of superfluous men. Like Pushkin’s tragic hero, they still have much to offer but find themselves living in the wrong historical moment, he writes:

In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, political scientist Cas Mudde defined populism as “an ideology that separates society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’” In Georgia, this populism is at least less harmful than in Hungary or Russia, where populist authoritarianism is in the ascendant. Look across Central and Eastern Europe, and you see the casualties of this zeitgeist and a long line of superfluous liberals. Parliaments that were full of professionals and intellectuals twenty years ago are now likely to be stacked with businessmen with parochial interests. It is hard to imagine a younger version of the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel [above], preaching tolerance toward minorities, being elected to the Czech presidency nowadays.

Authoritarian populists tend to suggest to their supporters that the democratic process has been seized by shadowy forces who are wielding it as a tool of oppression, The New York Times suggests:

In this view, “your opponents are not just somebody that you differ with on policy, it’s that they’re somehow trying to undermine the will of the people,” said Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College who studies Europe’s descent into fascism in the 1930s.

Rejecting elections as rigged sends the message that both the winner and democracy itself “fundamentally threaten what the people actually want,” said Berman, a regular contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

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