Ivan Davydov: Unimaginable

volodinVyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic

What Russia Cannot Imagine
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 18, 2019

Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.

This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”

The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.

Renaissance Men
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.

Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.

Volodin’s article has the same bent.

“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.

Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.

“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.

It is as if we have gone back to the early twentieth century, no? It was a romantic time. The public enthusiastically discussed “A Manifesto for Improving the State Administration,” published on October 17, 1905. The Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) had the upper hand in the first Duma, and Pavel Milyukov would soon take to the podium to demand an accountable government. Prince Sergei Urusov would soon make his famous speech.

“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.

His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.

No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.

Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.

The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution,  the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.

Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.

They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.

800px-Ilya_Repin_-_Ceremonial_Sitting_of_the_State_Council_on_7_May_1901_Marking_the_Centenary_of_its_Foundation_-_Google_Art_ProjectIlya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.

But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.

And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.

We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.

Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.

The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.

What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.

The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.

On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?

The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.

What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.

Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.

Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible.  This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.

“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.

Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.

What comes to mind is the slightly over-discussed topic, in recent days, of the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Moscow mirrors what happens all over Russia, and it is not a funhouse mirror. In recent days, authorities in the capital have flagrantly and impudently barred independent candidates from running in the elections. They have not attempted to hide the forgeries and falsifications they have used when “verifying” the signatures of voters on the petitions submitted by the candidates.

The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.

I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.

The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.

But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.

All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.

However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.

“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”

Now, what are you going to do about that?

Translated by Thomas Campbell

 

 

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Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

Plato Re-Elaborated

rus yachts.jpg

That city would not lack a yacht club, would not lack

a soccer club. Noting the absence of smoke from the brick

factory chimneys, I’d know it was Sunday,

and would lurch in a bus across town, clutching a couple of bucks.

 

I’d twine my voice into the common animal hoot-

ing on that field where what the head begins is finished by the foot.

Of the myriad laws laid down by Hammurabi

the most important deal with corner kicks, and penalty kicks to boot.

 

—Joseph Brodsky, “Plato Elaborated,” trans. George L. Kline, New Yorker, March 12, 1979, p. 40

 

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It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to be a regular guy, to immerse oneself in enjoying life, in a pleasant job, and forget that a dictatorship for life has taken root in our country? It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to forget the dictatorship wages war against neighboring countries? It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to forget it has destroyed all constitutional rights, the freedom of speech, secularism, the right to a pension, the right to one’s native language, and the right to forget things and be happy?

—Sergey Abashin, Facebook, June 24, 2018

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

Grigorii Golosov: Democracy without Democrats in Russia

Democracy without Democrats: The Prospects for Parliamentarism 
Under a well-functioning system, even the current parties can be a good defense against autocrats
Grigorii Golosov
Republic
August 25, 2017

As hopes for Russia’s becoming a democratic country in the foreseeable future fade, the question of the institutional structure of a future Russian democracy is overstated. Even the best-intentioned commentators often argue that none of the conventional mechanisms fit Russia. A presidential system would not do, because it concentrates too much power in the hands of one man and his retinue, leading directly to dictatorship. That sounds plausible. However, as Alexander Morozov recently wrote on Facebook, a parliamentary system would not do, either. If I understood him correctly, his main argument was that the roster of political players would be maintained under this system, and so “the same fools from the current parliamentary parties would remain in power.” That also sounds plausible.

One of the problems with such dramatic assessments is obvious. They imply that Russia’s current political trajectory is unique, and the systems of governance tested and proven workable in other countries would thus never function in Russia. Theoretically, we cannot exclude such options. North Korea, for example, has now generated a political configuration I am willing to acknowledge unique both in terms of structure and possible consequences. However, there is no mystery as to the miserable country’s future. If it is destined to rid itself of the Kim dynasty, it will have to associate itself with South Korea under conditions acceptable to China and the US. It would be pointless to go into the details, but the overall picture is quite clear.

Russia is a different story. I do not see anything unique about Russia’s circumstances. By world standards, we have a quite ordinary authoritarian regime. All the signs point to the fact the regime is in the upward phase of its trajectory, that is, in the process of consolidating. We are thus unable to say anything definite about how it will cease to exist.  Hardcore opposition politicians (of whom, I think, Alexei Navalny is the last man standing) have it simpler than analysts. Politicians simply fight the good fight, using any means available. They do not need to gaze far into the future. But analysts do need to see into the future and would like to see in the future. They are not very good at it, however.

Hence the cognitive error they make, an error best described by the classic metaphor of the black box. There is an initial state and a set of possible outcomes, but the box conceals its interior from us, what is in the middle. Since the initial state makes optimism groundless and has not even fully manifested itself, an optimistic assessment of possible outcomes seems implausible. It is impossible to avoid the error, but we can minimize its consequences if we ignore what might be inside the black box, that is, if we temporarily forget about “progressive” generals, lizards from the planet Niburu, and even about Navalny and other possible drivers of democratization in Russia. Instead, we should focus on democracy’s structural features.

Yet, the first hypothesis we have to take into account is that liberal democracy, regardless of its institutional shape, entrusts the decision of who holds power to a majority of voters. Hence, if the absolute majority of votes in an election are conferred on a potential dictator or his party, the return to authoritarianism is a question of time, and it matters not a whit whether the potential dictator holds the office of president or prime minister. Recent events in Turkey vividly bear this out. The country’s parliamentary system, which had existed for several decades, was unable to withstand a head-on collision with a single-party monopoly. The fact that Erdogan did indeed become the full-fledged president merely capped off the transformation, but the process itself took place within the parliamentary system.

The Turkish Parliament in Ankara. Photo courtesy of Umit Bektas/Reuters

It follows that the main danger to a democracy under a parliamentary system consists not in the absence of succession among parliamentary elites, but in the establishment and long-term reproduction of a political monopoly in parliament. The experience of many countries, from Eastern Europe, where it was neutralized by the project of joining the EU, to Africa, where it has not been neutralized and has caused efforts at democratization to fail on several occasions, testifies to the fact that the danger is quite real. It is natural, after all, that at the first elections after democratization people vote en masse for the most persuasive opposition party and hand it a majority in parliament. The country’s main democrat then becomes a dictator, since there is no institutional counterbalance to prevent it.

This should make us look at the prospects of the current parliamentary parties after democratization.  One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is bound to survive, while two others, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the so-called party of power, United Russia, have good chances of surviving. It is unlikely they would enjoy idyllic relations with a new regime. Then, as becomes clear from the argument I have made, above, the survival of these parties would serve as a positive factor in democratization. They themselves are unlikely to become advocates of democracy, but that does not matter. What matters is that their presence in parliament, if it is considerable, would help restrain the authoritarian impulses of the new ruling group, if they manifest themselves.

I believe the MPs in the current parliamentary parties are neither fools in the mundane nor the political sense. Mainly, they are cunning, experienced wheeler-dealers who have managed to maintain their places at the top of Russia’s turbulent political heap. Clearly, however, they have used their tenure in parliament to preserve features of the current system that benefit them. In other words, they would lobby against progress under a new system, and this would indeed inject a hefty dose of stupidity into the work of building democracy in Russia. The dilemma is this. To stave off the new regime’s authoritarian impulses, they would have to be influential, but they would fritter away their influence on impeding reform.

Hence, I am inclined to think that a semi-presidential system would be optimal in a democratic Russia. The president would have serious powers, albeit powers severely limited by the constitution. Structurally speaking, it would approximate the European parliamentary system more than the presidential system of the US and most Latin American countries. However, it is now utterly useless to go into the details of this system, because they would depend greatly on the transition to democracy, now concealed from us by our imaginary black box.

However, I do not see any particular problems with a parliamentary system in a future Russia. Democracy is not only the rule of “democrats” as a party (a truth we in Russia have already swallowed, it seems), but nor is it necessarily the rule of politicans who adhere to democratic views. The presence of such politicians is extremely beneficial. But views are a shaky thing, and what matters more in a democracy is the structure of political competition. We know several examples of successful democratization, from late eighteenth-century France to modern Bangladesh, in which the role of card-carrying democrats in the initial state of the transition was extremely modest, and the main fight took place among several dictatorial factions. What mattered was that they successfully prevented each other from establishing a new dictatorship.

Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

The Best Russia Experts Don’t Live in Russia, or, Crypto-Putinism

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“There’s a more likely possibility, and it doesn’t hinge on accumulated historical trauma or some irrational longing to go back to the Soviet system. With the USSR’s fall came the loss of many other things Russians valued: their country’s stature in the world, decent living standards, the welfare state, education, even a sense of community and collective identity. Putin’s apparent promise to restore some of these things is a far better explanation for his widespread popularity at home than the theory that most citizens have been too brainwashed or traumatized to think for themselves.”

But he’s been eighteen years “in office” and he hasn’t restored any of these things really, and he never really promised to restore most of them, not that you would notice if you hadn’t lived here during those eighteen years, as the author of the book review, quoted above, has signally not lived here.

Nor, as far as I know, did the author ever live in the Soviet Union he misses so much, but which lots of former Soviet citizens I know don’t miss at all.

Go figure why the western left misses a country most of its current supporters never lived in or visited for a millisecond, but which millions of its actual former inhabitants don’t miss for a second. It says something slightly disturbing about the intellectual integrity of the western left, doesn’t it?

As for brainwashing, I can’t say anything about Russians, but I know a lot of foreign so-called Russian experts and reporters covering the Russian beat who have been brainwashed by the triumvirate of dishonest Russian pollsters known as FOM, VTsIOM, and Levada Center into believing that Putin enjoys “widespread popularity at home.”

In fact, this popularity is a lot less apparent when you’re actually on the ground day after day for years on end, conversing and dealing with lots of different people who say lots of different things but somehow usually fail to express their ardent love of Putin. Here, in the actual Russia, not the imaginary Russia inhabited by the Russia experts, his “popularity” looks more like a dictatorship for life, reinforced by brute police force, flagrant corruption, major TV channels that have been nazified to the point that almost no one I know has watched them for years, and selective but regular show trials in case anyone has forgotten where they really live.

Why do so-called Russian experts, like the author of the review, quoted above, believe every poll about Russia those shysters and shills publish, including the pap about Putin’s rampant popularitry?

I’ll tell you why.

Because the world’s greatest Russia experts do not live in Russia, nor do they want to live here (they’re not stupid!), but endlessly citing so-called Russian public opinion polls as if they are the gospel truth gives their specious, highly partisan arguments an air of scholarly or empirical knowledge, of “knowing what Russians really think.”

The subject of today’s Russia and what Russians really think is way more complicated (and, sometimes, way more simple) than the certified Russia experts suspect or want to admit, however. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Extreme Makeover: Russian Home Edition

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Ty Pennington

This is what is meant by ruchnoye upravlenie or “hands-on governance” in Russia.

“In a stage-managed gesture of benevolence a year ahead of a presidential election, Russia’s Vladimir Putin flew 1,200 km (750 miles) to call in on a woman living in squalor and ordered her to be rehoused immediately” (Gleb Stolyarov, “Eyeing election, Russia’s Putin stages visit to voter’s rundown home,” Reuters, June 28, 2017).

None of the other candidates (?), especially Alexei Navalny, who was officially sidelined by the Central Electoral Commission the other day, can hand out new houses and trips to Sochi to the needy. If they could and did, they would probably be brought up on charges for influence peddling or something like that.

But Putin can do it. The problem is that he cannot and will not do it for everyone, and certainly not in the systematic way implied by the clause in the 1993 Russian Federal Constitution that declares (emptily, as it would turn out) that the Russian Federation is a “social state,” i.e., a welfare state in the best sense of the word. That would mean bankrupting the current Russian state, i.e., the capitalist oligarchy run by Putin and his cronies in “manual mode” for their own benefit and one else’s.

I love the headline: “Eyeing election…” There are virtually no real elections in Russia, and in the few elections where a real, well-meaning person might, theoretically, be able to sneak past the watchful eyes of the elections boards—say, if she ran as a candidate in a lowly municipal district council (not even for city council or regional legislative assembly, where the winners do have nominal or real power and, at least, in Petersburg, personal discretionary budgets for spending on pet projects)—she would end up serving on a entity that has almost no budget (to hand out largesse, like Putin did in this case, or to do something that benefits all or many of her constituents) and no power whatsoever.

Putin will limit his campaigning to a few feel-good demonstrations of “manual control” like this one, where he unwittingly reproduces the role played more cheerfully and persuasively by Ty Pennington on ABC’s popular reality TV program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which probably did more for the needy than Putin has ever done and ever wants to do. TRR

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Miru Mir (We Don’t Care)

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“Peace to the world.” Central Petrograd, December 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
December 25, 2016

I will perform my familiar role as Captain Obvious. The Alexandrov Ensemble, Doctor Liza, the ambassador to Ankara, and the two hundred and seventeen people flying back to Petersburg from Egypt over a year ago would still be alive if President Putin had not personally ordered our troops into combat in Syria.

It is impossible to calculate how many Syrian women and children were killed by Russian bombs, but nobody in Russia gives a shit about it. The Vesti TV news program said they were smearing their faces with tomato juice instead of blood, and everyone believed it, because it is easier that way. But it is odd that over the past year no one has bothered to ask Putin what higher purpose was served by the death of the twenty-five Russian children flying in the plane from Egypt that was blown up by Islamic State. It was possible to explain the Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow by invoking the battle for Russia’s so-called territorial integrity. The hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine had something to do with Ukraine’s being our nearest neighbor and the so-called Russian world. (Although that would be cold comfort to the families of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, blown to smithereens by a Russian rocket.) But no one in Russia has any clue why our army has put itself in the middle of the latest bloodbath in the Middle East. Ask anyone on the street. They won’t know what to say: I have checked. No one believes in the fairy tale about fighting Islamic State.

People believe more in the spiel about supporting the vampire Assad, but it doesn’t come across as persuasive either. After all, Assad is not Yanukovych, who, at least, was right next door and bought natural gas from us. More people believe we are involved in a tactical war with America. We have supposedly shown the Yanks we know a few tricks ourselves. That was the explanation given to me by a guy in Michurinsk. Yet he felt no indignation whatsoever, by the way. Hundreds of Russians have been killed in this war, a war the country is fighting the fuck knows where and the fuck knows why. You have to be utterly brainless, of course, to know everything we know about Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same deal again. But that is the saddest part: no one could give a flying fuck.

On television, they ramble on about GEOPOLITICS. It is now the magic spell, the national idea, the new Russian god that has replaced hydrocarbons, which have proved unreliable. It works like a charm, because any crap on either side of the border can be explained in terms of geopolitical interests. The majority of Russians still imagine that geopolitics is something remote and boring, something Pyotr Tolstoy would discuss on his talk shows, but in fact it has now made itself at home in nearly every Russian household in the shape of incipient poverty, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating medical care and education, rising utilities rates, and, more and more often, the violent deaths of loved ones.

The most surprising thing, however, is that Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests, to which so many victims have been sacrificed, is a myth, a fiction, the latest of Putin’s simulacra. You and I have no interests in Syria, and neither does Russia. All of Russia’s major foreign policy decisions, from the annexation of Crimea to the war in Syria, have initially been made by one man on grounds known only to him. Were rank-and-file Russians terribly worried about whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine until the president took care of the problem? This is not to mention Syria, whose existence was a mystery to many Russians until we launched military operations there.

There is no separating Putin from geopolitics. Putin is geopolitics, and Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests are mainly the interests of Putin, who is guided by a rationale known only to him. God knows what is going on in his brain, but after sixteen years of individual rule, anyone’s brains would warp. This is a typical problem of authoritarian regimes: the illusory reality in the dictator’s overindulged, fevered brain becomes everyone else’s reality, and real people die.

A dictator thinks a thought, and it immediately becomes the national idea. We know that our dictator has long been uninterested in anything except self-assertion in the international arena. At home, he has everything sorted out (he even erected a monument to Prince Vladimir recently), but when it comes to authority on the world stage everything has been totally fucked. He has played the big shot every which way to Sunday, but it has only made those sordid faggots in other countries frown even harder. They have got Putin stuck on the fourth rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the need for reverence and respect. He cannot move on to the highest stage, the stage of spiritual development, where a lonely Gandhi and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize have long been waiting for him.

Putin sees geopolitics as a gamble in which he has been trying to beat the West by desperately conning it. He sees us as bargaining chips. It is clear he will continue to solve his profoundly personal problems using the entire country as a hammer. Of course he claims to be acting in Russia’s interests, but the trouble is that after so many years of unchecked power it is hard to separate national interests from personal interests. Putin has so fused with the system, he has short-circuited so many public institutions, that you pull him out of politics now and Russia really would crumble. Putin does in fact now equate with Russia, and if you oppose Putin, you oppose Russia—in the shape in which it now exists.

So you won’t get any optimistic pre-New Year’s predictions from me. The Napoleonic tricorn, propped on the head of Little Zaches, will grow so large it will soon completely obscure his view. The quantity of insanity and victims will thus naturally increase.

Andrey Loshak is a well-known Russian journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to a number of friends for the heads-up

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UPDATE

Andrey Loshak:

“I wrote a post in which I said Putin was responsible for the crash of the Defense Ministry plane.  There was no malice or disrespect for the memory of the dead in what I wrote, just a take on well-known facts. A hour later, a hellish orgy kicked off in the comments section in which wishes for my immediate death were expressed. Who the heck knows whether they were trolls or not. Some of them were definitely real people. I think that if I had been tied up and handed over to them at that moment, they would have skinned me alive, ripped out my heart, and stomped on it. Such orgies had occurred before, as soon I would write something critical about Putin. You cannot imagine how many insults I have had to read, written by aggressive assholes who had never met me in real life but who nevertheless called me all the names in the book and dispensed idiotic jokes about my surname and my loved ones. I used to take such things ironically, but after my son was born, I have felt like personally smacking everyone in this pack upside the head. My ‘liberasty’ lasted for a long while. For almost eight years, my Facebook page was as open and pluralistic as the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. I thought it was vital to maintain the possibility of interacting with people who held different views. Unfortunately, however, the absolute majority of them proved capable only of insults. This audience is, probably, what is pejoratively dubbed the vata: an aggressive, mentally limited pack, willing blindly to follow the alpha male anywhere, whether to the edge of the precipice or over the edge. Today I couldn’t stand it and acted liked Putin. I changed the comments settings: now only Facebook friends can leave comments. I must admit my little sociological experiment in establishing a dialogue with society has failed.”

Source: Facebook