An abyss of silence. You shout at the top of your lungs, but there’s no response, only silence. It’s like in a dream when you need to shout, but you have no voice at all. It’s gone. In a dream, however, you can wake up, while in this case…
On the placard, I had tied a bell to a symbolic spool of the white thread that was used to sew the shaky case against Alexander shut. It trembles in the wind, and passersby hear its “ding-ding.” For whom does the bell toll? Don’t walk on by, don’t look away…
Why did I get involved in the case of Alexander Merkulov (aka Aleksandr Peĵiĉ)? We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Why, even though I hate court hearings, did I attend three court hearings last week?
The bell has a tongue. Many people in prison don’t have a tongue. The Russian Themis does not hear them. Not only has she blindfolded her eyes, but she has also put earplugs in her ears and plugged them tight. Whether you yell or not, you will be sentenced The judicial ear is sensitive only to the sovereign’s oprichniks. Gulag-minded, the courts presume that you are guilty, nor are their verdicts subject to review or appeal.
So it turns out that the only voice prisoners have is their circle of support on the outside. These groups are different for everyone. The famous blogger has hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The arrested journalist enjoys the corporate solidarity of the media: the major newspapers publish editorials about him, while his colleagues devote columns and radio and TV broadcasts to him.
A prominent public figure is supported by ordinary Russians, his fellow activists, and human rights defenders. And doctors, actors, truckers, feminists, LGBT activists, etc., have the support of their own communities. But Merkulov’s case has nothing to do with LGBT issues, so LGBT organizations can’t give it the proper attention and resources.
Sometimes, it is possible to raise a regional case to a national and even international level of publicity, as many people have managed to do in the case of Yulia Tsvetkova by pooling their efforts. While it is no guarantee of victory, it increases the chances.
But most cases in Russian courts are heard in complete silence. People are sentenced, transported to prison, and serve their sentences or die trying, and yet nobody says a word. Of the five cases that were heard in Petersburg City Court on Wednesday morning in the same courtroom as Alexander’s case, only his hearing featured a few members of the public in the gallery. The other defendants faced indifferent silence before hearing the judge say, “The appeal is denied, the defendant will remain in custody.”
Recently, the Perm human rights activist Igor Averkiev wrote an excellent post entitled “The Personal Usefulness of Crowds.” It’s not about people, it’s about animals—about the chances a hypothetical “introverted reindeer named Sergei,” a “social reindeer named Kostya,” or a “young musk ox named Proshka” would have against a pack of predators, a pack of “Lake Taimyr wolves.” I will quote a couple of passages from it.
“I’m a reindeer named Sergei. But I’m a very introverted, nearly autistic reindeer, and I only really feel good when I’m alone. And so, being the only other reindeer for many miles around, I come across a pack of hungry wolves. My chances are almost zero: I run faster, but they are more resilient. Moreover, when I’m alone, it’s easier for the wolves to work together smoothly as a group. Basically, I’m no longer here… Natural selection is why we don’t see ‘nearly autistic introverts’ among reindeer.”
“Any danger forces people (and not only people) to band together in a group, in a crowd. This happens instinctively. The import of this instinct is obvious: it depersonalizes the threat. When I am in a crowd, the danger is not focused on me personally, but rather is distributed over a large number of people, which increases my own chances of survival. But you can not only hide in a crowd, the crowd can also protect you. When it comes to self-defense, the size of the crowd matters.”
Any metaphor has its limits, of course. So, returning to Alexander, I want to talk about more than just him. We know that he is one of Averkiev’s “autistic introverts.” Not only does he lack media fame, but he also lacks a large number of what are called “stable social connections.”
(The topic of how the system cracks down on people with psychiatric or mental peculiarities deserves a separate post).
And this was where I said to myself: Stop, Alexei. There is no retreating. If it weren’t for you and the few colleagues who have got involved in this ‘hopeless case,’ and for Alexander’s mother, Alexander would be a goner.
I think this was what Olga Masina, who is seriously ill and undergoing medical treatment, and yet still works, said to herself. She stubbornly spends the few free hours and energy she has covering Alexander’s case. And then, like ripples on water, other people plug into the campaign. Svetlana Prokopyeva, who was convicted of the same “crime,” wrote an article about Alexander between her trial and her appeal. And Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko has got involved, too.
This story is not so much about Alexander, it’s about all of us. This is a test of our personal commitment, of our capacity for overcoming ourselves and our circumstances. Do we do something, however small, or do we just turn away and make excuses?
Of course, even a serious public response does not guarantee a 100% positive outcome. But the lack of support almost guarantees a negative outcome. And, at least, our involvement is felt by Alexander, and it is important for him, he writes about it in his letters.
I will end this post with two actual quotations.
“We’re not going to Merkulov’s court hearings. He’s not as cute as Yegor Zhukov,” writes a gay man.
“I’m not ready to picket yet. The case itself is quite murky.”
Does this warrant up to 7 years in prison? Do we need to keep Alexander in jail for three months running as if he were a particularly dangerous criminal? For me, the answer is obvious, and the point is clear in this sense: there were no calls for violence in Alexander posted. On the contrary, when reposting, he wrote that he did not approve of violence.
There is no counting the streets in our country that still bear the names of terrorists, but our valiant security forces could not care less. We LGBT activists send notarized bundles of the threats we receive to the police, but they don’t open criminal investigations because, they say, “the threats are not real.” Assaults, domestic violence, and poisoning are “not grounds for criminal prosecution.”
But Alexander’s actions are a “threat to national security”? The criminal case against him is a joke. The article in the criminal code under which he has been charged [Article 205.2] a mockery of the law. In my opinion, if it is left on the law books, then at most it should be an administrative offense.
We’re talking about people’s lives here. We’re talking about Alexander’s life. Will his fate be decided in silence, or will we pass this test of caring? We don’t have horns and hooves like musk oxen and deer, the only things we have are our voices and our conscience.
At 12:30 p.m. on September 10, the appeals hearing on Alexander’s remand in police custody will take place at Petersburg City Court.
Save Alexander Merkulov (Peĵiĉ) Telegram
September 10, 2020
The Petersburg City Court upheld the original decision to remand Alexander Merkulov in custody. In the photo, you see the face of this “justice”: Judge Tatyana Matveyeva Tatyana , hiding behind the monitor.
Prosecutor Minina didn’t even stay for the announcement of the court’s decision. Apparently, she already knew it in advance.
Alexander was present via video link and was very happy to see us in the camera🙂
There Are Elections That Build Democracy, and Elections That Kill It: The Tricks Is Not to Confuse Them
Igor Averkiev igor-averkiev.com
March 13, 2018
1. If you relate to elections solely as a value, you will never grasp their essence. You will never tame them.
2. In the modern world, the presence of elections per se in a particular country is neither an achievement nor a value, except for liberal democratic fundamentalists. In the modern world, it is the political outcome of elections that is an achievement and value. In some countries, elections build democracy, while in other countries they kill democracy. In Russia, they kill democracy.
3. There are about two hundred countries in the modern world. The vast majority of them (around one hundred and eighty) hold elections more or less regularly. Around fifty countries in this vast majority are more or less classic democracies. There are another forty countries that hold elections and are more or less classic authoritarian regimes. The other hundredsome countries that hold elections are ruled by a variety of transitional, semi-authoritarian, and hybrid regimes. Meaning that elections per se do not vouchsafe democracy at all. Morever, in most of the world’s countries, people voting in elections does not produce democracy.
4. Elections are merely a social know-how that can be used by anyone for any purpose. Know-how is a simple thing: if you wield it, you can profit from it in keeping with your interests. An axe is similar in this respect. It matters who wields it: a carpenter or a killer. In the hands of some people, elections produce a democratic regime, while in the hands of others they produce an authoritarian regime. Democracy is not programmed into electoral know-how itself. Democratic elections thus coexist on our planet with authoritarian elections: everything is decided by the person who presides over the elections. If you want elections in Russia to produce democracy, first you have to gain control of them. Elections serve democracy only when they are monitored at all phases by political forces with a stake in democracy. Nor is it only a matter of monitoring the tallying of votes.
5. Elections serve democracy only when the question of power has already been resolved to the benefit of pro-democratic forces or during an unstable transition period in which an authoritarian regime is still in power, but can longer dismiss pro-democratic forces out of hand. Therefore, in order to use elections to advance democratic interests, they must first be taken away from the old authoritarian boss. Or he must be so scared he has to take the interests of pro-democratic forces into account when elections are held. There is no other way. This is how things are done the world over, but millions of freedom-loving Russians for some reason still believe that regularly going to vote in elections presided over by someone else will in itself hasten democracy’s victory in Russia.
6. What is democracy? I won’t go into high-flown arguments, but the democracy that freedom-loving Russians like so much gels only when the country is run by politicians who have no desire to restrict political competition. They are willing, if push comes to shove, to lose elections; moreover, they are willing to accept defeat until the next elections. That’s all there is to it. That is why there is no democracy in Russia: because the people in power restrict political competition and have no intention of losing elections under any circumstances, much less accepting defeat. They are assisted in their restriction of political competition by the selfsame democratic know-how and institutions. It is just that without democratic politicians inhabiting them, this know-how and these institutions are only formally democratic, not democratic in fact.
7. The pro-democratic forces include not only the liberal democratic parties but also all political and civic organizations—leftist, nationalist, imperialist, religious, environmentalist, alternative leftist, alternative rightist, etc.—whose political interests are not bound up with Vladimir Putin’s personalist regime, who have no plans to limit political competition in Russia, and are willing, depending on the outcomes of elections, not only to come to power but also to cede power. Putin’s authoritarian regime can be opposed only by a broad pro-democracy coalition, without necessarily becoming a formal coalition. The trial version of this broad pro-democracy coalition presented itself to the country during the nationwide protest movement that kicked off in December 2011. We should not expect extremely well-coordinated joint actions from a broad pro-democracy coalition. (The “Decembrists” overplayed their hand in this respect.) It is enough to head in the same direction along more or less parallel routes, coordinating actions at certain critical points.
8. An electoral authoritarian regime, such as Russia’s, is organized quite simply. All the democratic know-how a modern country is supposed to have—elections, representation, separation of powers—functions smoothly, but not all comers have access to it. It is even simpler than that. An authoritarian regime simply does not allow potential competitors, that is, leaders and organizations, to get on their feet politically and grow organizationally to the extent they would be able to surpass the two- or three-percent minimumthreshold of votes needed for admission to the political arena. It does this by refusing to register parties, intimidating leaders, limiting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in a pinpoint fashion, etc. If, despite everything, they nevertheless grow and thrive, they are simply not admitted to elections, as I have mentioned. In Russia, therefore, democratic procedures do not serve democracy. The soul of democracy is not know-how, procedures, and institutions, but people willing to use them in a particular way. In Russia, politicians interested in democracy simply do not make it into formal democratic politics. Thanks to the political regime built by Vladimir Putin, year after year only pro-authoritarian political forces make it into Russia’s formally democratic politics, and year after year they limit the involvement of pro-democratic forces in democratic procedures. It is a vicious circle. There is democracy, and there is no democracy at the same. Putin’s authoritarian regime is even elegant after a fashion.
9. Elections in authoritarian countries do not increase the supply of democracy, nor do they prepare the way for it, since they do not facilitate competition, do not put the opposition through its paces, and do not put rank-and-file voters in circumstances where the country’s fortunes depend on the choices they make. In authoritarian countries, elections function as a full-fledged authoritarian institution for legitimizing the regime. In authoritarian countries, elections are required only as a source of power, nothing more. Everyone involved in these elections is involved solely in legitimizing the regime. They are doing nothing else.
10. In authoritarian and hybrid countries, including modern Russia, elections have another vital political function. Elections are also an outlet for the liberal public, a valve, installed by the regime, for releasing oppositional steam and keeping opposition politicians busy somehow. The Putin regime has used elections to satisfy the need many freedom-loving Russians have to “fight for democracy” in a safe, comfortable way, a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. Everyone comes out on top. The liberal public engages in self-actualization, and the regime does not find it frightening.
11. If the liberal democratic opposition’s sole aim is symbolic involvement in election campaigns within the authoritarian regime, but year after year the regime does not permit it to grow politically and organizationally, and does not allow it to run in elections, the opposition will gradually wither and become marginalized. This, in fact, is the kind of opposition we have nowadays. If we realize, however, that elections serve democracy only after the question of power has been decided to the benefit of pro-democratic forces, it means we need a different opposition altogether, one radically different from the opposition that has filled the niche the past fifteen years. We need a liberal democratic opposition that is not hung up on being involved in meaningless elections governed by someone else’s hostile rules. We need an opposition focused on vigorous, direct political action and a propaganda duel (a fight over values) with the regime in order to command the attention and respect of the so-called Putinist majority, those very same “ordinary people” who, when a window of opportunity opens, would at least not oppose the new, free-minded political alternative. There is a big problem with the word “new,” however.
12. The creation of a new, free-minded opposition is encumbered by the liberal democratic fundamentalism that holds sway in the minds of Russia’s freedom-loving public. One manifestation of this fundamentalism is, in fact, the irrational cult of elections: all elections are good, regardless of their political essence and their consequences. Two other burdens are the extreme political impracticality and even archaicism of today’s liberal democratic platform. Currently, we have nothing to offer people from the standpoint of a future regime. Here is a simple question. What can we offer the average Russian family, something they would really need and value, that the Putin regime either cannot give them or promise them? The keywords in this case are “really need and value.” Moreover, in the obviously adverse conditions of a post-Putin Russia, the current liberal democratic prescriptions would necessarily lead the country into new crises the very first year they were implemented and, consequently, to new outbursts of the conservative revolution. It is ridiculous to discuss this with educated people, but thinking outside the box is now more important than doing things. At very least, it is more important than running off to vote in Putin’s elections.
13. For free-minded Russians and Russian politicians, the issue today is not how to win Putin’s authoritarian elections, but how to behave and build a reputation in society today in order to win future democratic elections in which the former so-called Putinist majority would be among the voters. If you want to facilitate the collapse of the Putin regime, you need to work less with the Putinist state and more with the Putinist majority.
14. The main problem freedom-loving Russians face in the impending presidential election is not what choice to make, whether to vote or not, and certainly not who they should vote for. The main problem is that whatever choice each of us makes—to vote or not vote, to vote for Yavlinsky or Sobchak—it will have no impact whatsoever on the fortunes of Vladimir Putin and his political regime. Any electoral action we take will change nothing about the election or the regime. Judging by various opinion polls [sic], there are between ten and fifteen million of us in Russia. Even if we assume the incredible—that all of us would act in concert in this election, and thanks to our monitoring the elections themselves would be extraordinarily fair—we cannot have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, even if each of us to the last man boycotted it or we all voted for Ksenia Sobchak or Grigory Yavlinsky.
15. Everything is seemingly quite simple. In Putin’s Russia, elections have nothing to do with building democracy and vanquishing the Putin regime. Why, however, does something so evident not get through to many advocates of liberty and diversity in Russia? How did the perverted cult of mandatory involvement in all elections take hold among such a considerable segment of the Russian liberal public? There are explanations. First, many opposition politicians, speakers, opinion leader, and experts have a professional stake in Putin’s elections. Some of them try and run in these elections (the simplest way of being an opposition politician in an authoritarian regimes), while others assist the elections professionally, serve as polling station monitors, analyze the whole megillah or write about it. This entire mob would simply be out of a job, in the broad sense of the word, if the opposition-minded public did not vote in authoritarian elections. Thus, in the opposition milieu, they are the principal propagandists and agitators for the idea of voting in these demonstrative non-elections. Since, as a rule, they are the most intelligent, energetic, and authoritative people in opposition-minded communities, their opinion is quite important. Second, as I have mentioned, above, involvement in authoritarian elections (“but they are elections all the same”) has served a considerable segment of the liberal public as a safe, comfortable way to “fight for democracy,” a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. The notion that it is foolish and nasty for an advocate of democracy to vote in authoritarian elections immediately nullifies the opposition’s semantic space, the space of election enthusiasts, plunging them into the “desert of the real.” Everything is so painful and disturbing in that desert. You have to acquire a new civic faithfulness to yourself, redefine yourself in terms of the meanings and tools of your opposition, what normal risks are, who your supporters and opponents are within the opposition, and so on. “No, it’s better to vote in Putin’s elections.”
16. On the other hand, if nothing really depends on us in Putin’s elections, is it worth persuading our allies not to vote in them? Why hassle people? Why prevent them from doing what they deem important? Because things won’t get any worse for us if they do vote in the election anyway, right? I think it is still worth pestering them. Politics, after all, depends on political sentiments and emotions, and thoughts are tangible things even when they are not true. If millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “How can I vote in authoritarian elections the right way, so that it benefits the opposition’s cause?” that is one kind of opposition. But if millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “What else, besides voting in authoritarian elections, can I do to dismantle the Putin regime and bring about the victory of freedom and democracy in Russia?” that is a completely different opposition.
Igor Averkiev is the chair of the Perm Civic Chamber. Photo courtesy of Igor Averkiev. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
“Our[s]” because Putin, like Hitler, is blood of the blood, flesh of the flesh of his own people.
“Good” because authentic national leaders (so long as the majority of the people regard them as such) are never seen as bad by their own people. Until the final days of the Third Reich, the majority of Germans thought that Hitler was a good man.
“Hitler” because the type and style of President Putin’s rule is quite similar to the type and style of Reich Chancellor Hitler’s rule during the early stage of his career. Because the situation in post-Soviet Russia is quite similar to the situation in post-WWI Germany. Because the Russian populace at the turn of the millennia closely resembles the German people during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
There is the problem of perspective, however. Most people in Russia have formed their notion of Hitler through books, films, and all sorts of political folklore that describe the last phase of the German Führer’s career, which is identified with the war and the concentration camps. The average Russian knows practically nothing, however, about the early, pre-war Hitler, whom our contemporary Putin resembles. Naturally, Hitler’s personal road to hell was paved with good deeds and good intentions.
Like Hitler at the beginning of his career, Putin today is no villain. Like Hitler, Putin is simply saving the Motherland.
When someone sets out on the great task of saving the Fatherland, he doesn’t intend to kill anyone. It is the logic of absolute power and the mission (of “Savior of the Fatherland”) that lead to this outcome. (Although the comparison seems trivial, the mission of “resurrecting the Fatherland,” for example, gives rise to a completely different logic.)
Like Hitler, Putin is sincerely loved by a majority of his people. He is loved by simple folk.
Like Hitler, Putin has become a real national leader because he has an amazing ability. Willingly or unwillingly, Putin encourages the worst qualities of the Russian people. It is these qualities that are always the most seductive for the ordinary person.
People love Putin the way they loved Hitler because he lets them relax. He lets them shrug off the burden of responsibility, freedom, and civilization. Under Putin, as under Hitler, people can calmly succumb to their phobias and weaknesses. Under Putin, as under Hitler, it is easy for the ordinary man to be irresponsible and dependent, cowardly and servile—society won’t judge him for it. Under Putin, as under Hitler, it is easy and pleasant to give in to the most vivid and powerful human emotion—hatred.
Like Hitler, Putin is not only loved by simple folk; he is also a quite convenient figure for the greater part of the Russian elites. In exchange for the loyalty of businessmen, scholars, and men of the arts, President Putin liberates them from the burden of competing with others of their kind. He provides the administrative guarantee that they will achieve a professional status worthy of their station or a lucrative sinecure in our state capitalist market system.
Putin is no Stalin. President Putin has no leftist project. He isn’t against the rich. He doesn’t intend to unleash the people on the elites; he isn’t a slave to the notion of material equality. Who cares, however, what ideas rattle around in someone’s head? Despite their profound ideological differences, Hitler and Stalin found common ground in their use of mass terror and concentration camps. There are still some people, however, who think it is important what banners will be waving over the new concentration camps.
While they rail against the post-Soviet regime and democracy, the few textbook fascists and Nazis in Russia don’t lay a finger on Putin himself: they sense that he is one of their kind. On the contrary, anti-systemic (i.e., ideological, not CPRF) leftists of all stripes—from the Russian Communist Workers Party and the Trotskyites to the anarchists and antifa—are intransigent in their opposition precisely to Putin himself. They sense that, in his heart of hearts, he is their brown-shirted antagonist.
There are two kinds of national leaders: “bright” and “dark.”
The first kind—Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Peter the Great, Lenin, Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.—call on the nation to exert itself and storm the heavens. On the contrary, the second kind of leader—Ivan the Terrible, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao—relaxes the nation, plunging it into the abyss of primordial instincts. Unfortunately, Putin continues the cause of the second group of leaders, the “dark” ones.
Like Germany before Hitler’s rise, Russia before the advent of Putin was paralyzed by a national humiliation. Both these great powers went through the shame of military defeat: Germany lost WWI; Russia, the Cold War. Both these great nations were humiliated by the victors. Both countries relinquished the aureole of greatness that had warmed the hearts of their citizens.
Both nations experienced the collapse of the government institutions they had become accustomed to—the institutions of imperial and Soviet power. Both peoples forced themselves to carry out a vulgar democratization, which caused them great suffering. Their Great Depression and our cold-and-hungry, ruble-crashing nineties turned Stability and Order into folk idols. In pre-Hitler Germany and pre-Putin Russia, leftist and rightist politicians, communists and socialists, liberals and democrats, were unable to generate popular enthusiasm for their projects for the future (although the reasons for their failures were different). Not knowing where to find the strength for rebirth and unable to activate their own resources, both peoples began the hunt for enemies.
Both countries were waiting for a savior. And he arrived.
Like Hitler, Putin is the savior of the Fatherland, the guardian of Greatness, Stability, and Order. Putin is on the verge of becoming The Supreme Leader.
Like Hitler, Putin safeguards the country from enemies both foreign and domestic. According to the majority viewpoint, Putin, like Hitler, personally provides for their welfare and prosperity. For the average Russian, the main thing is to be on Putin’s side (just as ordinary Germans were on Hitler’s side). Everything else will work out by itself.
Like Hitler, Putin is the heartthrob of the most helpless and aggressive section of the population—young people. The Nashistas are quickly and naturally turning into textbook stormtroopers and Red Guards. Like Hitler, Putin gives young people who lack confidence and a sense of independence the chance to become socially adapted by climbing the corporate ladders of his regime (Nashi, the Young Guards, Political Factory, etc.). He provides them with an official, legal outlet for their aggression. (Anyone who has seen the Nashistas in action will know what I mean.)
Like Hitler, Putin is essentially a regular guy: he is neither a villain nor a moral cripple. We sense that, like the “early Hitler,” Putin has an ordinary sense of honor, dignity, duty, even in politics. It is only later on—burdened by the “Savior of the Fatherland” mission, drowning in flattery and panegyrics—that the personality loses its compass and begins to crumble. It breaks with universal norms and loses a humane gauge for measuring good and evil.
Busy with saving the millions, such leaders first forget about the thousands and then about those very same millions. Every important person who lays claim to absolute, exclusive power hopes that he will have the presence of mind and strength of will not to become a moral freak: after all, he himself is a very special person. The years go by, however, and like everyone else who has ever achieved absolute power, he turns into a monster. The only people who avoid this fate are those who, in their hunger for power, either find within themselves the strength not to don the Ring of Omnipotence or who just fail to do this. Our president has already extended his finger towards this ring with the “black hole” in its middle.
The same experience forms the basis of Putin’s and Hitler’s “political personality.” Each man suffered the geopolitical defeat of his country as a personal defeat, as a moral trauma—one while stationed as a semi-combatant on the front lines, the other while serving the Motherland on the “invisible” front. Unlike the majority of their comrades-in-arms, however, this trauma wholly determined each man’s latter destiny.
Both Putin and Hitler possess the kind of charisma that grows with time. It feeds not on the inner world of its possessor, but on the world around him. (This sort of charisma is very economical in terms of wear and tear on its possessor’s health.) Quiet, disciplined, and lacking any brilliant or outstanding qualities in their youth (that is, they weren’t heroes), both Putin and Hitler suddenly flower as it were. In a talented, even brilliant manner they increase their personal greatness not by drawing on the inner resources of soul and intellect, but through the external circumstances of urbis et orbis.
Both Putin and Hitler are political maximalists. Both Putin and Hitler in full seriousness shouldered no more, no less than the mission of saving their countries. Neither Putin nor Hitler settled for achieving supreme status in their respective states through elections and lobbying. Neither Putin nor Hitler was able to limit himself to the role of leading a democratically determined majority. At the end of the day, both Putin and Hitler made claims to an absolute power that cannot be contained within the boring, straitening framework of parliamentary democracy. (How else are we to understand the fact that President Putin has favorably reacted to his new informal status as “national leader,” that bashful paraphrase of the Soviet-Russian vozhd and German Führer?)
Despite essential differences in their characters, both Putin and Hitler are incorrigible populists. There is no doubt that both Putin and Hitler have a subtle talent for making themselves liked by the people. This is a thesis that requires no proof.
Neither Putin nor Hitler is a rightist, a leftist, a liberal, a socialist, on the side of freedom and justice. Both Putin and Hitler are on the side of the people and the national interest, and they are against the enemies of their countries. Both Putin and Hitler are above politics as it were. (Putin himself has said as much more than once.) Both Putin and Hitler insist they came to power not the way everyone else comes to power—via money and personal struggle—but that it was the people itself, the supreme mission, providence, destiny, duty, and so on that put them there. The political way of Hitler and Putin is the middle way, the third way. It is the way of non-alignment with any of the ideologies that divide society. It is the way of uniting the nation by effecting universal salvation from common enemies. It is that same old Bonapartism that elevates demagoguery (I say this without irony) to the level of national ideology and high strategy.
If we get down and dirty we must say that, like Hitler, Putin is a fascist. A fascist at least in the Weltanschauung sense of the word: a populist who aspires to absolute power, draws on popular xenophobia for support (in this case, the national “cult of the enemy”: enemy of Russia, public enemy, enemy of the people, etc.), and has a tendency to use violence as the principal instrument for solving political and social contradictions.
To be more precise, President Putin displays a tendency towards fascism. His regime has only just begun to get the hang of the third component of fascism—violence as the political universal. This violence is physical, moral, and social: the thuggish mass blackmailing of voters via absentee ballots and threats of firing; the thuggish mass restrictions on print shops printing non-United Russia campaign literature; the thuggish mass confiscation of non-United Russian campaign literature; the transfer of oversight of the “fairness” and “legality” of the election campaign from the electoral commissions to the Interior Ministry; the excessively forceful, militaristic break-up of the silly Marches of the Dissenters; the preventive arrests of non-United Russia activists; the experimental pogroms of non-United Russia campaign headquarters by young Putinistas, and on and on and on. In all of this we see the regime thuggishly demonstrating its as-yet-exaggerated power (and knowing it will go unpunished).
During these elections, hundred of thousands of people in Russia felt that they had been politically raped. True, they aren’t the majority. But they aren’t the worst non-majority in Russia.
Scholars who study the history of Weimar Germany and the history of fascism know what all of this looks like.
As he grapples with his political enemies, President Putin tries to master a strictly fascistic (or rather, totalitarian) type of repression: “popular” repressions, repressions carried out by the people itself. “Enemies of the people” are offered up to specially trained representatives of “the people”—storm troopers, pogromists, Red Guards, Nashistas—so that they can be symbolically or physically ripped to shreds. A simple dictator uses the police, the Okhranka, the gendarmes—that is, the state—to repress his enemies. This isn’t enough for the fascist/totalitarian supreme leader: his “populism” demands the staging of “popular” “societal” crackdowns.
President Putin’s campaign against corruption, against “werewolves in uniform” (and out of uniform), his taming of the oligarchs, and his populist social policies all repeat, point by point, the domestic and social policies of Adolf Hitler’s young fascist state. These “sound” policies were Hitler’s undeniable service to the German people of that day and age, but these sound policies do not excuse all the other points in the Führer’s record.
Of course, President Putin has only just set out on his “dark road.” He has only taken the first steps, but these steps leave no illusions as to the direction in which they are headed. The absolutist/totalitarian comportment of our president; the ease with which large-scale (though still not fatal) repressive measures are employed; the willingness to respond to any political challenge almost exclusively with the force of the “administrative resource” and by unleashing the new oprichniki on foes; and the hyping of the “enemies of Russia” song-and-dance all point to the totalitarian/fascist essence of current events.
But we are still at the turning point. Everything described above still exists side by side with a specific (restricted) freedom of speech (which is a freedom all the same). The “administrative resource” often cannot withstand simple organized civic resistance. Despite all their shortcomings, the courts have on many occasions shown that they are capable of defending citizens from the misrule of the state. We are at the turning point—and this is very important.
Like Hitler, Putin willy-nilly is a carrier of the spirit and political logic of “dark overlords.” Like all leaders with his mental make-up, Putin is doomed to attract “dark” human resources like a magnet. As soon as Vladimir Putin came to power, thugs, mooks, and hooligans of all stripes and calibers crawled out of the woodwork and gazed heavenwards.
Despite the superficial respectability of the current regime, Vladimir Putin’s advent marked the arrival in our country of state bureaucratic hooligans, enlightened yobs, and high-ranking mooks. I have in mind the predominant style of public life, political fashion, how one is supposed to present oneself in society. In this sense, Gorbachev’s Russia was a time of idealists and revolutionaries. Yelstin’s Russia opened the door to rogues and adventurers. Putin’s Russia has liberated hooligans and schmucks of all professions and generations.
The country is homesick for courage, for heroes, for protectors of the common folk—for the “bright” ones. But for the time being there is a shortage of such people. The old heroes either drank themselves to death or faded away during the stagnant Yeltsin years; the new heroes have either only been conceived or are still infants. Imitators have taken their place on stage. Instead of social heroism, the public is offered a demonstrative loutishness that flaunts its impunity. Loutishness is the stylistic hobbyhorse of the Putinist elites, who look for support in the callous strength of the mob or the padded megatons of the “administrative resource.” It is under Putin that skinheads have broken out of the courtyards and entered the public squares, that crime bosses have rushed into politics, that mooks from the prosecutor’s office have begun to run the courts, that impudent thugs passing themselves off as refined political commentators have seen their heyday, that the OMON, our modern-day gendarmes, have taken up the supremely pleasant task of driving the “dissenting” remains of our naïve liberal intelligentsia from the streets of Russia’s major cities.
President Putin’s guilt or misfortune, his shame or tragedy, lies in the fact that he literally exudes the vibes that attract mooks and thugs of all sorts. Moreover, one cannot shake the suspicion that Putin himself isn’t a match for those who are drawn to him, for whom he serves as a call to action. Until recently, his personal reactions to the world were quite ordinary. They didn’t exceed the bounds of decency accepted in Russia for men of his age, educational level, profession, and temperament. As often is the case with “dark” supreme leaders, Vladimir Putin is himself not a lout, but that doesn’t change much. Heinrich Himmler was not a sadist, but in his line of work he couldn’t do without them. He and his cause simply drew such beasts like flies.
The Putin regime is also the public triumph of dull mousey types. To convince yourself of this, you just have to take a sociological or even simple human glance at the United Russia crowd. United Russia, Nashi, and the Young Guards are well-oiled machines for recruiting and selecting mediocrities. It all fits.
Like Hitler, Putin is, of course, forced to seek the services of talented and decent people, of highly qualified professionals. But their service to the regime is an endless series of painful professional and human compromises. It is not they who make up “Putin’s guards.”
As was the case earlier on, Putin’s Russia still has no need of brave soldiers and effective bureaucrats. Putin’s Russia doesn’t like self-sufficient politicians and independent businessmen. What it needs are new Maliuta Skuratovs, siloviki gardeners—specialists in trimming everything that moves a bit too fast or pokes its head a bit too high.
Most important, it appears that, like Hitler, Putin has no need for citizens—he needs subjects. It is only subjects that President Putin is ready to care for; it is only subjects he is prepared to lead to new Russian greatness. Every day, in everything he does, President Putin hints at this. He sets the tone.
Something happened to our president two or three months ago. It was as if he’d been switched with someone else. His Russian officer’s honor, his political pragmatism, and his healthy conservatism have ceased to protect him from the temptations of absolute power and the cheerless mission of Supreme Leader and Savior of the Fatherland.
During the 2007 Duma election campaign, President Putin tried on the mantle of “national leader” and thus practically made a claim to absolute power in Russia. Absolute power is power unlimited by anyone or anything: it is not limited by elections, by parliaments or by constitutions. Or rather, the power of the national leader, the supreme leader, “the father of the nation,” etc., is limited only by the leader’s personal ambitions and the love of his people. Everything points to the fact that President Putin, like Reich Chancellor Hitler eighty years before him, aspires to this kind of power.
It is possible that this whole bacchanalia—”national leader,” the elections as a referendum “for Putin,” the empty fuss around the creation of a movement of “Putin supporters”—was either simply the result of fright or merely the latest attempt to soften people up, to make them more receptive to new forms of the “administrative resource.” But the trouble is that the majority of the population and a significant portion of the elites took this experiment seriously. Perhaps because they are mentally weak or perhaps it was out of habit. Or because they simply have no time to reflect on what’s happening—their hard lives get in the way.
But as a result we’re in serious straits. The fact is that any major political act necessarily generates the ironclad logic of its consequences, a sort of political fatum. The politician either submits to the logic of events produced by his deed or he ceases to be a politician. In the best case, he leaves the political scene; in the worst, he comes crashing down in a fatally speedy manner. In humanity’s historical memory this phenomenon has become firmly welded to the metaphor “crossing the Rubicon.”
Vladimir Putin crossed his Rubicon when he let the country know that he claims absolute power in Russia—a power unlimited by any formalities or term limits, a power that seeks support only in the FAITH the majority of the population has in him.
Now Vladimir Putin will be forced to affirm his right to absolute power with each new step he takes. Each new action of his will have to be tougher than the previous one. Any backtracking, any failure to reaffirm his “absolute” status will be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Real or imagined, weakness is a fatal political disease for the absolute leader; it is tantamount to a swift, irreversible downfall. Therefore, we all are threatened by an escalation of Putin’s sense of justice, sternness, and intransigence. The number of Russia’s enemies will multiply simply as a means of demonstration. It is not political malice that will give rise to crackdowns, but the lack of alternatives. Vladimir Putin now must win all skirmishes whatever the price or pretend to win them by deceiving his people and using the propaganda techniques perfected by Goebbels. For each and every second he will have to “save face”—the face of a national leader who has the right to despise everything except the people’s faith in him. If nothing changes in the coming months, then in the not-so-distant Russian future what lies in store for us is compulsory Putinist radicalism and extremism, egged on by our faith. This is the meaning and ironclad logic of Vladimir Putin’s life after the 2007 Duma election campaign.
It no longer matters whether President Putin seeks a third presidential term or not. What matters is that he has become the “national leader.”
As late as this past summer, President Putin could look towards 2008 and imagine himself doing or becoming anything. Now that he has made his claim on absolute power, our president has narrowed the field of choice to a single dilemma: either he becomes the autocratic master of Russia or he consciously becomes a political nobody.
An endlessly tragic choice. And all of us, the entire country, are hostages of this choice.
In his time, Julius Caesar, that great, thoughtful dictator, was unable to face a similar dilemma and let himself be murdered.
But not everything has been decided. We are at a crossroads.
The situation is quite serious, but goddamn it, we’re a great country! We’re not Turkmenistan, damn it! (Please forgive me, my former brothers.)
1. Our President can still stop himself, but only, of course, at the price of his own career, at the price of his political extinction. Here, unfortunately, no compromise is possible. Or rather, it is possible, but it would unleash chaos. Our lives will be hard (really hard) without Vladimir Putin: his capabilities and achievements as head of state are obvious. We’ll wander for a year or two, but then we’ll finish building our country and work things out. Anything to avoid a war.
2. Today’s Russia resembles inter-war Germany in many ways, but it is quite different in others. Despite the success at “verticalizing” power, the state in Russia is still quite weak and unfinished. We still somehow don’t notice the fact that not one of the reforms launched by Putin has been completed (except for the political and technical division of the country into federal districts, and the mechanical reshuffling of political institutes, such as the abolition of gubernatorial elections), and many vital reforms were simply aborted because the state apparatus was incapable of digesting them. The systems of social welfare, education, health care, and policing just haven’t emerged from systemic crisis. You cannot overcome their indifference to the individual and the low quality of the services they provide by simply pumping petrodollars into these systems.
There is a flip side to all this. It is bad to live in an unfinished state, but for the usurper it is an unreliable instrument. In this type of national state, the leader will have a difficult time demonstrating to the populace his new successes: a lot of time and energy will be spent on finishing the work of building the state. But the people doesn’t offer itself up to the Savior of the Fatherland only to wait endlessly for manna from heaven. The apparatus of repression in Russia also isn’t of the high quality that would allow the leader to rely on it wholly, thus driving the dissenters into the same stockade with the consenters.
It would take a long time to unravel this logic, but it would appear that, in the twenty-first century, personal dictatorships are no longer effective when it comes to quickly solving large-scale problems, as used to be the case. Modern life is much too complicated structurally, and the populace’s own interests are much too varied. Technologies for manufacturing consent quickly are what guarantee success in today’s political realm.
3. Yes, the Russian people have lived through the same traumas that the German people did in their day. These traumas, however, overtook us during the twilight of the industrial era. The social instincts of most of us are no longer framed by the experience of collective production in factories and plants. We are not so unified and herd-like: we are better informed, historically more experienced; we know something about their Hitler and our Stalin. We’ve tasted the joys of free time and private life to a greater degree. We are more varied and subtle in our desires. As such, we are harder to control from a single center of power; it is harder to dominate us. Although, of course, the majority of us have for the time being yielded to Putin’s offer to exchange our will for his custody. If this has happened because of light-mindedness and a specific form of political apathy, it’s not all that bad. Both are quickly cured.
4. In Russia, twenty to thirty percent of our fellow citizens by definition find the exertions of the careful dictator’s minions disgusting. That is a lot. It is enough to unite and by the force of our emotion and our unity convince the rest of the population that we are right.
If twenty to thirty percent of Russian citizens consider that everything that happened in the fall of 2007 is a serious problem, then that means we have work to do.
To be “bright” is a choice. To be “dark” is a matter of circumstances. Change them. —Svetlana Makovetskaya
P.S. The choice of Dmitry Medvedev as Vladimir Putin’s “successor” and his subsequent petition (disarming in its political archaism) to “His Supreme Majesty” to become Medvedev’s future prime minister affirms, at minimum, President Putin’s desire to leave without leaving. To cultivate, whatever the cost, the status of “national leader,” with all the attendant consequences, as described above. Naturally, Vladimir Putin himself, his clients, and his supporters explain that it’s all for the “good of Russia.”
Our president is like our oil: on the one hand, it’s a good thing; on the other, it would be better if we didn’t have it. If oil rescues the Russian economy while simultaneously depriving it of the stimulus to develop, then President Putin, by arousing and conserving paternalistic moods in the people every which way he can, limits the political and civic development of the Russian nation. At the very least, that is.
Editor’s Note. As УралПолит.ру reports, on February 18, 2007, the director of the Perm Regional Civil Rights Center and the editor-in-chief of the center’s house organ За человека, Sergei Isaev, and the publication’s executive secretary, Roman Yushkov, were summoned to the Perm Territory prosecutor’s office in connection with publication of this article. The reason for the summons was an inquiry issued by the Perm Territory Directorate of the Federal Service for Oversight of Legal Compliance in Mass Media and the Protection of the Culture Heritage (Rosokhrankultura). Rosokhrankultura found evidence of “extremist” activity in the article and demanded that measures be taken against Isaev, Yushkov, and Averkiev in accordance with the laws on “extremism.”