Escape from Freedom
Vladimir Gel’man Vedomosti
August 15, 2016
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the August 1991 coup is a sad one for supporters of democracy. In twenty-five years, Russia has not only failed to draw closer to political freedom, but has grown ever more distant from it. According to Freedom House, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was a “partly free” country with an average of 3.5 on the scale of the political and civil liberties (Finland rates a 1, while North Korea rates a 7), whereas the 2015 rating described the country as a consolidated authoritarian regime with an average rating of 6. A return to the good old days of the “good” Soviet Union, a political and economic regime resembling its Soviet counterpart but lacking its inherent fatal defects, has become the slogan of the day for the Russian ruling class and society at large. The fall of the communist regime seemingly gave Russia the chance to move towards democracy. Why was it frittered away?
From Dictatorship to Dictatorship
The twenty-five post-communist years in Russia and elsewhere have taught us the fall of authoritarianism does not lead to democracy by default. An alternative to the success stories is the transition from one authoritarian regime to another. The American political scientist Barbara Geddes has calculated this turn of events happens much more often than democratization. Most often, the failure of democratization is ascribed to structural causes such as low levels of social and economic development or strong ethnic and religious fragmentation. Sometimes, however, the most capable and cynical politicians, seeking to maximize their own dominance, seize power amid the ruins of autocracy. Regime change often goes hand in glove with considerable upheaval, and the stabilization that succeeds it tends to favor potential new dictators. As Adam Przeworski has noted, “Since any order is better than any disorder, any order is established.”
In some cases, however, the new autocrats have managed to achieve their goal, while in other cases they have not. Democracy emerges only if and when politics are faced with insurmountable barriers, forcing them to play by the rules, which involve losing power if they are defeated in elections. In turn, these barriers are the side effect of other phenomena: an inherent conflict among elites, a standoff among various social groups, including class conflicts, influence on post-authoritarian countries on the part of the west, and the ideological preferences of political leaders. In countries from Eastern Europe to Latin America where one or more these factors came into play, democracies were able to take root, although not immediately. But events have taken a different turn in Russia and a number of other post-Soviet countries.
Russia: Building Authoritarianism
In the recent book Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes, I wrote that post-1991 Russia can serve almost as ideal case study of the successful building of authoritarianism. The objective conditions in no way condemned Russia to an authoritarian trajectory. The level of the country’s social and economic development, and the scale of its fragmentation were, by international standards, quite sufficient for successful democratization. But no barriers arose to prevent the emergence of a new authoritarianism in Russia. Indeed, all the conflicts among elites (between Russian and Soviet authorities in 1991; between the president and parliament in 1993; among the various clans hoping to succeed Yeltsin in 1999) were resolved as zero-sum games. The victors completely destroyed or absorbed their opponents. Popular politics (with the exception of the brief outburst of protests in 2011 and 2012) have played a secondary role since the fall of the Soviet Union. At best, ordinary Russians have been tools in the hands of elites struggling for power; at worst, they have been passive spectators. The west’s influence on domestic politics in Russia has been insignificant for the entire post-Soviet quarter of a century, and it has only waned over time. Finally, since the fall of the Soviet Union, all political ideas have been subordinate to the vested interests of pragmatic politicians, which has made our country quite different from many post-authoritarian countries, ranging from late-19th century France to Weimar Germany.
In the 1990s, political leaders were prevented from maximizing power by a long and deep economic recession and the weakness of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Boris Yeltsin aphoristically stated his vision of power in Russia: “Someone has to be in charge of the country, and that is that.” Under these circumstances, he was forced to behave not like a full-fledged autocrat, but as the leader of a rather motley ruling coalition, maneuvering among his allies, including oligarchs, federal officials, and regional officials. In the 2000s, amid economic growth and the strengthening of the law enforcement and security agencies, Vladimir Putin was able to enlist the support of the elites and the masses, and free himself of the restrictions imposed during the “wild” nineties. By reformatting the ruling coalition and introducing institutional changes (which included abolishing gubernatorial elections and transforming the system of political parties), he succeeded in consolidating a new Russian regime and earning an A+ in the global college for autocrats. So, in each of the critical moments of post-Soviet political history, Russia has retreated further and further from freedom. The rejection of political reforms immediately after the coup was crushed in 1991, the dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1993, the 1996 presidential election, the systematic restriction of political competition in the 2000s, and the repressive politics of fear since 2012 have been the milestones on the road to Russian authoritarianism. A quarter-century after the collapse of the communist regime, the illusion of democratization in Russia has been completely dispelled.
Can the Authoritarian Balance Be Maintained?
At first glance, today’s Russia is an example of a sustainably balanced personalist authoritarian regime. Neither political protests, international conflicts and foreign policy isolation, or economic slowdown have so far seriously challenged it. But unavoidable risks are inherent even to Russian authoritarianism. First, it is threatened by palace and military coups. It is they, not popular uprisings, that are the most common cause of the fall of such regimes. Not surprisingly, changes in the ruling coalition (including shuffles in the security agencies) and promotion of officials on the basis of personal loyalty are meant to lower such risks. Second, and more important, personalist regimes usually survive as long as their leaders. It is possible the political status quo in Russia can be maintained as long as the current generation of leaders is alive. But the likelihood they will successfully transfer power to their chosen successors is statistically insignificant, and that means Russia is likely to live through another regime change, perhaps more than one. However, these changes need not necessarily take place in another quarter of a century. Indeed, the Soviet regime seemed unshakeable for a long time, and the prospects of its collapse, about whose inevitability sagacious observers warned us, were not taken seriously for years. Sooner or later, a regime change may (though not necessarily) open up new chances for democratizing Russia. The future will show whether these chances will be seized on or once again, like twenty-five years ago, they will be squandered.
Since Putin couldn’t smash Aleppo with his pal Bashar Assad, he is now going to provoke all-out war with Ukraine. Or he is going to play at provoking all-out war. Either way, he is going to have some fun.
In 1939, the Finns likewise “provoked” Stalin into invading Finland. Meaning that Stalin pretended to be provoked, and then went in guns blazing, getting three hundred thousand Soviet soldiers killed or wounded in the process.
There are oodles of serious problems with the Russian economy, which Putin shows no interest in solving, because really solving them would involve the self-liquidation of the current elites. Although pumping up defense spending and, hence, the military-industrial complex, which is what he has been doing in the past few years, has been a temporary patch on some of those problems, of course.
It is funny and sad that Russians themselves don’t get tired of this merry-go-round, but they seem to be sinking ever deeper into various species of emigration, internal or actual, or what they themselves call a “second childhood.”
It is even funnier that Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the US Green Party, could believe she was doing the work of peace or “anti-imperialism” or whatever she thought she was doing when she dined with Putin in Moscow or that she could imagine the “crisis” in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine was caused by anything other than domestic Russian politics or, rather, the snowballing contradictions spinning off the tiny, eccentric orbit inhabited by the country’s president-for-life in all but name and his retinue of oligarchs and FSB veterans.
Anyone who thinks the Kremlin’s policies are a rational or predictable response to the “international situation” or the bad deal Russia allegedly got when the Soviet Union broke up is a complete fool or a bought-and-paid useful idiot. You can be traumatized by the “bad things” your parents did to you (unless they really were bad things) for only so long.
When, however, you have reached the ripe enough age of twenty-five, as the new Russia has this year, it is time to stop telling stories about your bad upbringing or how you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.
In other words, this is all about the dead end Putin and his pals from the FSB and the Ozero Dacha Co-op drove the country into when they decided they would run Russia like Tony Soprano and his crew ran whatever they were pretending to be running in the fictional TV New Jersey.
Putin has flagrantly and criminally misruled Russia for seventeen years as of August 9. That is one year less than Brezhnev reigned as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. But Putin, to all appearances, is fit as a cello, unlike Brezhnev was in 1981, the year before he died.
Ugh. Happy new year.
Thanks to Comrade MT for the felicitous line about the cello. Photo 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.”