I first met Boris Kagarlitsky—the jailed Russian anti‑war socialist—in Moscow in March 1989. This was in the last days of the Soviet Union. President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) was running into increasing trouble.
Gorbachev was trying to modernise the state capitalist system by introducing more market mechanisms and relaxing political repression. The result was economic collapse, political and social revolt, an abortive military coup, and state disintegration.
The brutal transition to market capitalism that followed impoverished much of the population, set the scene for Vladimir Putin’s seizure and consolidation of power.
These were the times when Boris emerged as Russia’s leading anti-Stalinist socialist. He first served prison time late in in 1982-3. In a recent letter from prison in the northern Komi Republic he says conditions there are better now.
Soon after we first met Boris came to London to deliver a lecture to mark the award of the Deutscher Memorial Prize for his first book, The Thinking Reed. The enthusiastic audience included many members of the Socialist Workers Party. Later I went to meet him at the home of Tamara Deutscher, expert on Soviet politics and widow of the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher.
The Thinking Reed was a history of the Russian intelligentsia, which had played such an important part in the revolutionary movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Boris himself is a living example of this group – erudite, fluent in several languages, brimming with humour and charm. But he’s also a consistent and committed anti‑capitalist and anti-imperialist.
We’ve never agreed on political strategy. Part of Boris’s consistency has been to follow the early 20th century French socialist Jean Jaures in arguing that “reform and revolution, far from being mutually exclusive, augment and are conditioned by one another”.
In practice, this means following a kind of radical reformism—seeking what Boris calls “revolutionary” or “irreversible” reforms that change the structure of capitalism.
Alas, the neoliberal era has shown that no reform is irreversible. But resisting what Boris calls the “new barbarism” of contemporary capitalism has kept him in the front line of protest movements around the world.
During the height of the movement against neoliberal globalisation in the 2000s we met all over the world at forums and rallies. I think I last saw him in London in 2014 at an anti-Nato meeting organised by the Stop the War Coalition.
Boris hasn’t always made the right political calls. The brutality and corruption of the Russian version of neoliberalism has tempted him sometimes to ally with ideologically reactionary forces opposed to Western imperialism and its allies in central and eastern Europe.
Thus in 2014 he made the mistake of welcoming the pro-Russian separatist revolts in eastern Ukraine as “a revolutionary movement”.
But Boris has been a staunch opponent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He argues that “most of the motives for the war in 2022 were purely domestic. It was an attempt to restore the shattered support for the regime in the face of mounting social and economic crisis.”
The Putin regime returned the compliment by branding Boris a “foreign agent” and now has charged him with “justifying terrorism”. This is absurd. As he himself says, he has “consistently condemned the invasions of Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yugoslavia for so many years, held protests against the bombing and interference in the affairs of sovereign countries and rallies of solidarity with the peoples of these countries.”
The campaign of solidarity with Boris and other anti-war prisoners in Russia is growing. One of the several petitions supporting him—freeboriskagarlitski.tilda.ws—is developing into an umbrella for the campaign.
There’s also a Telegram channel called “Freedom for Kagarlitsky”. It helped to organise a day of online protest to mark Boris’s 65th birthday on 29 August.
More protests are planned for 16 September. Whatever the regime says, it cares about international opinion. So we need to make our voices heard for Boris and his comrades.