Take care of Russia – But Mr Putin is not setting about it in the best way
Oct 22nd 2016 Economist
When Boris Yeltsin walked out of his office for the last time, at the end of 1999, he famously told Mr Putin: “Beregite Rossiyu!”, which translates as “take care of Russia” or “preserve Russia”. But what did he mean by “Russia”? Was it a new country born from the 1991 revolution, or was it an old Russia restored after the Soviet regime? Unlike other Soviet republics, it could not celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union because it had been its core. Nor could it hitch its wagon to the European Union and NATO—it was simply too big.
Russia’s freedom in the 1990s had been sustained not by the institutions of an enlightened state but by a plurality of economic and political actors, the weakness of the security services and Yeltsin’s determination to defend it. His legitimacy and support rested largely on the Russian people’s rejection of the communist system that produced plenty of missiles and tanks but little that anyone wanted to consume.
When they rejected communism in the 1990s, Yeltsin and his colleagues portrayed Russia not as a new nation state but as an heir to its pre-Bolshevik self, borrowing many of its symbols, including its flag. They depicted the Soviet period as an anomaly that had interrupted the course of Russian history. But they could not come up with a clear identity and a destination for the new post-Soviet Russia.
The 1991 revolution had been largely bloodless because the old nomenklatura retained its economic and often its political power. (Yeltsin himself was a former Communist Party boss.) It did not and could not bring in a new elite because after 74 years of Soviet rule there was none. And although the oligarchs who in the 1990s took over the commanding heights of the Russian economy and the media had all the appearance of an elite, they lacked any sense of responsibility for their country. It was partly the failures and in-fighting of that Westernised ruling class that prompted Yeltsin to pick Mr Putin as his successor in 2000. By that time the Russian economy was starting to benefit from the transition to a market economy, complete with coffee shops and the first IKEA superstore.
An opinion poll in 2000 found that 55% of the population expected Mr Putin to return Russia to the status of a great and respected country. Mr Putin was neither a liberal nor a Stalinist. His manifesto, published on the eve of the new millennium, was all about the value to the Russian people of a strong, centralised state. An opinion poll in January 2000 found that 55% of the population expected Mr Putin to return Russia to the status of a great and respected derzhava, which most Russians equate with “fear of their country”. Only 8% thought he would bring Russia closer to the West. Today half the population reckons that Mr Putin has indeed restored Russia’s position as a great power.
Mr Putin took the next logical step: he incorporated the Soviet period into the historical continuum of Russian statehood. Soon after coming to power he ordered the restoration of the Soviet anthem, which had been abolished when the Soviet Union collapsed. New lyrics were set to the music originally composed in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s terror. While Russian liberals cringed, most people saw it as a fairly harmless symbolic gesture to placate ageing Communist Party voters. After a decade of freedom under Yeltsin it seemed impossible that Russia would lapse back into Stalinism.
In a press conference in 2004 Mr Putin said: “Despite all the difficulties, we managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union. And we called this new country the Russian Federation.” He was not interested in its communist ideology or its hopeless central planning system. What mattered to him was the state, which had served the Russian empire and the Soviet Union equally well.
Alexander Yakovlev, the author of Gorbachev’s reforms, understood the challenge better than anyone else. In 1985 he had written to Gorbachev: “For a thousand years we have been ruled by people and not by laws…What we are talking about is not the dismantling of Stalinism but a replacement of a 1,000-year old model of statehood.” That model was never properly dismantled, and Mr Putin set about restoring it. According to Andrei Illarionov, his adviser until 2005, Mr Putin was haunted by fears of disintegration and saw the 1990s as a period not of freedom and stabilisation but of chaos.
In trying to preserve the nucleus of an old empire, Mr Putin eliminated all alternative power centres. He stopped direct regional elections, standardised legislation across the whole of Russia and appointed his own representatives to the regions. He thus destroyed the principle of federalism, which had kept Russia together and politically stable throughout the economic upheavals of the 1990s. Like many of his predecessors, including Stalin, Mr Putin believed, and still believes, that a country of Russia’s size and ethnic complexity can be kept together only by centralising economic resources and political power, and that the security services are the best tool for achieving that.
Yet Moscow, St Petersburg and even Kazan are modern European cities. They have little in common with Chechnya, a tyrannical state where elements of sharia law have been reintroduced. They also have little in common with Russia’s grim, small towns in the hinterland which form the core of Mr Putin’s electorate. The only way in which these differences can be peacefully reconciled is through decentralisation and political competition. Rather than being run as a centralised state, Russia would work much better as a federation in which each region can develop in its own way. This idea of Russia as a “united states” was first voiced by the Decembrists, a group of aristocratic revolutionaries who led an unsuccessful uprising in 1825.
To head off such notions, Mr Putin needed a unifying narrative about the past. The only one available was the Soviet victory in the second world war, which he presented as an exemplar of state power rather than a triumph of human values achieved by all allies. The sanctification of that victory, and Stalin’s role in it, has become the main ideological foundation of Mr Putin’s velvet Stalinism, disguised as patriotism—an old mix of Russian Orthodoxy, state nationalism and autocracy.
As a victor in the second world war, Russia was never forced to reject Stalinism in the way that Germany was forced to reject Nazism, even though the two regimes had much in common. In an insult to the millions of Stalin’s victims, the Kremlin has recently called Memorial, a long-established human-rights organisation set up to draw attention to the crimes of Stalin’s regime, a “foreign agent”—a synonym for “traitor”.
“Putinism”, writes Mr Gudkov of the Levada Centre, “is a modified version of a repressive and centralised state system which imitates the Soviet style of a totalitarian regime.” But for all his faults, Mr Putin is not a bloodthirsty tyrant. Although he has resorted to coercion and selective violence, both at home and abroad, he is neither willing nor able to reproduce the economic foundation of Stalin’s regime or impose a reign of terror. His system uses more subtle methods of control and manipulation such as rigging elections, demoralising or co-opting the liberal opposition and, most important, deploying television as a propaganda tool.
The reason Russia’s current nationalistic, anti-American propaganda is so much more effective than the Soviet version is that people choose to believe it. It plays to their feelings of jealousy, resentment and victimisation. As Mr Gudkov notes, television propaganda exploits the syndrome of “learned helplessness”—a psychological condition where people who have been repeatedly abused give up control and start believing that “nothing depends on us”. Having a mighty enemy, such as America, helps alleviate their feelings of failure and weakness. Russia’s anti-Americanism is based not on any real interaction between the two countries but on Russia’s domestic failures. America’s perceived aggression allows Mr Putin to present himself as the leader of a country at war.
The extraordinary support for Mr Putin (82%) as a head of state who stands up to this American aggression contrasts starkly with the deep contempt people feel for the power elite generally, whom they see as corrupt, amoral and callous. They applaud the annexation of Crimea but do not want to accept any responsibility for it. Like most other people, Russians on the whole have little interest in the outside world. They care far more about their families and their jobs than they do about foreign adventures. They have no wish to go to war.
Russia’s perceived resurgence is not a sign of strength but of deep weakness and insecurity. Its anachronistic state cannot deal with modern challenges, resolve contradictions and injustices or offer any vision of a common future. Russia’s regional diversity, its growing inequality and the contrast between the urban middle classes and the paternalistic periphery will remain causes of tension.
For most of Russian history…aggression was the same thing as survival. In the 20th century Tsarist and Soviet Russia smashed itself to pieces by competition first with the Germanic bloc in central Europe and then with Anglo-Americans. The limited recovery of Russian power under Mr Putin cannot hide the fact that Russia is weaker than it has been in the last 300 years.
Mr Putin knows he has a problem and is looking for ways to change the system while retaining personal power and dealing with the problems of elections and legitimacy. He may promote himself as a new national leader, a Russian late-period Deng Xiaoping. That would allow him to combine confrontation with the West with some degree of economic liberalisation (he has recently appointed Sergei Kiriyenko, a liberal of the late 1990s, as his deputy chief of staff). But Russia is not China. And Mr Putin will be aware that, as de Tocqueville said, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.
The Russian empire had been overdue for transformation back in 1914, but Tsar Nicholas II’s insistence on ruling like a 17th-century absolute monarch made it impossible. In the 1930s Stalin managed to hold the empire together by extreme violence. After the Soviet Union finally expired in 1991, the new regime gave federalism a chance for a decade. But since Mr Putin has been in charge, he has been trying to hold Russia together with the same anachronistic methods that had pushed his country into decline and political upheaval at earlier points in its history. Unless Russia can complete the transformation into a modern nation state that began in 1991, what Mr Putin tries to present as his country’s resurgence may in fact be one of the last phases of its decline.