One of the reasons for the decline of Russian opposition these days is that it’s hard to look at what Russia is doing and still say it’s on the road to ruin. Of course if one actually lives in Russia and travels about, you’d see the same kind of decay you could see a few years ago, but most people don’t see that. What they see is Russian troops clad in their latest gear in the Crimea, and the territorial expansion of Russia, which may end up adding Eastern Ukraine as its latest neglected backwater region. All the hysteria of a new Cold War is once again fueling the delusion that Russia is this rising power which will once again oppose the West as the Soviet Union did. I’m terribly sorry, but this is bullshit, and this recent story about Lithuania getting Gazprom to slash its prices is proof.
By itself it might not mean much, but it is indicative of a much larger problem facing Russia as various countries find ways to free themselves from energy dependency and competition for oil and gas rises. This is also why the new Cold War claims are extremely foolish. Yes, Russia is acting like a superpower and it may seem like this will lead to a new Cold War, but Russia is not the Soviet Union and that Cold War is likely to be short, predictable, and bad for the peoples of Russia.
What the Russian intelligentsia totally miss in their efforts to rework the Soviet Union into a second Russian empire, is the fact that the Soviet Union’s early successes against the worst odds were due to its internationalist, socialist ideology, something totally rejected by the typical pro-Kremlin ideologue these days. The Bolsheviks were a very small party who owed their success to their internal discipline and expertly crafted revolutionary theory and practice. Though not always successful, they reached out to oppressed peoples of the empire and if they could not secure their support, they could usually at least ensure that they would not support the Whites who wanted to restore imperial domination of their territories. What is more, those were the days of a massive, militant international workers movement, and that movement played a major role in preventing the remaining imperial powers from supporting the White movement during the civil war. During the Seattle general strike of 1919, dockworkers refused to load ships destined for Vladivostok to support the Whites. Similar strikes took place in Britain and France, forcing those countries to pull their intervention forces out as well.
The survival of the Soviet Union struck fear into the hearts of ruling classes everywhere. They would have liked to invade and destroy the country, but they realized that they’d have to rely on the workers in doing so, and the working class’ sympathy was either with the USSR, or at least dead set against destroying it. During the interwar period, some Western politicians in Britain and France though it might be a lovely idea to encourage Adolf Hitler to expand eastward, turning Germany into a bulwark against Bolshevism which would inevitably get in a bloody conflict with its ideologically opposed neighbor thereafter. Of course that didn’t pan out too well.
The Soviet Union also enjoyed widespread popularity after the Second World War, largely for its role in defeating European fascism. This was bolstered by the country’s support for anti-colonial movements. While the USSR degenerated ideologically as the decades wore on, it still remained a symbol of anti-colonialism as it freely funded and supported people’s liberation movements. Brave North Vietnam was juxtaposed with a corrupt, failing South Vietnam which was run by people totally out of touch with the masses and subservient to foreign governments. Angola, with Soviet weapons and Cuban assistance, struck a massive blow at apartheid by defeating the South African Republic in battle. Anti-colonialism and anti-racism were inextricably linked to the Soviet Union and the teeth-gnashing rants of right wing extremists from the Cold War era confirm this. In this case it makes no difference as to the realities of the Soviet regime or whether it eventually became a sort of empire itself. What matters is how it was perceived and the friendly attitudes it could count on abroad, because this was serious diplomatic capital.
Russia, on the other hand, does not have this. Russia really has little to “sell” besides oil and gas, two things it will not be able to rely on forever. There is a huge difference between the people who “support” Russia from abroad today and those who supported the USSR back in the interwar period. In those days, you had masses of organized people who actually wanted to overthrow their own oppressors and adopt a form of the Soviet system. These days support for Russia is rarely anything beyond the old “enemy of my enemy” principle, sometimes coupled with some bizarre romantic ideas about the country. The kind of ideology promoted by the Kremlin and its media is extremely caustic and negative, which is unfortunately because in the big cities you often see the same vibrant, casual, open-minded social life that you might see in any European city. In the political arena, however, it’s all authoritarianism, obscurantism, and demands that the Russian people learn to submit and obey. In politics you can pretty much choose any side so long as it is right wing and reactionary. If some of these groups are against Putin, it is only because they see him as not authoritarian enough, and of course Russians need a strong leader to run their lives for them. While RT can easily find left-wing intellectuals to comment about the junta in Kyiv, few among them have any illusions that Russia is holding aloft the banner of anti-fascism. Many of those militants in Ukraine who express solidarity with Russia or a desire to join Russia clearly espouse fascist views. As I’ve said before, the program of Ukrainian extremist parties like Svoboda or Praviy Sektor would be quite popular among these people or many people in Russia if one simply changes the text relating to Ukraine and Ukrainians to references to Russia.
This also means that a lot of Russia’s most enthusiastic support from outside the country tends to come from right-wing social losers who can’t cope in their own society and thus look to Russia as a sort of promised land, one in which they might actually, some day, possibly get laid. The problem with attracting social rejects from the West, is that they aren’t good for much in propaganda combat. Typically most of their countrymen readily grasp that these are in fact bitter losers, and therefore they aren’t convinced by their arguments. What you want in a propaganda war are figures who are successful or at least very talented and articulate. The Soviet Union, for example, could count on support from Paul Robeson. What is more, in Robeson’s day, the Soviet Union sincerely believed and promoted its internationalist ideology. There were a few African Americans who actually settled in the USSR and their descendants actually live in Russia today. Obviously attitudes changed dramatically over the decades and of course after the fall of the USSR, but in Soviet times it was possible for foreigners to live in the USSR and actually be treated as though they were a part of it. Today that’s quite different, so American Mr. “My Great-Great-Grandfather-was-half-Czech-or-maybe-Polish-ergo-I-am-Slavic-ergo-Russian” moves to Russia and decides to take up the cause of Russia in the “information war,” he’s never really respected by his nationalist “comrades.” They are people who routinely preach the importance of blood and your native land, the land where you were born. They have nothing but the deepest contempt for “traitors” of any kind. So our hypothetical American can tell us all about how he’s “assimilated” and “practically Russian,” but deep down his new friends see him as a traitor without any roots, good only for propaganda value. Ultimately, they are not embraced by their own countrymen back home, nor their new Russian masters. Dance, American traitor monkey! Dance!
What Russia needs is a diverse spectrum of successful people, both financially and socially, moving to Russia or spending time there. And I’m sorry but Stay Puft Marshmellow Man’s stunt double, Gerard Depardieu, just doesn’t cut it. It shouldn’t just be washed-up celebrities and people with shit-tons of cash who can afford to live like Russian millionaires, i.e. totally isolated from the people. You want a thriving expat community like Prague, or what the British have got going in Costa Del Sol. That allows for cultural exchange, and not the typical government-approved propaganda which always calls to mind the image of some bearded man hysterically stamping his feet and bellowing, “Traditional values! Patriotism! Obey! Strong leader! Bleaaaaargh!!” This kind of shit has been the norm in Russia for over twenty years now, and not only is it not working out, but it’s also not fooling anyone who actually lives in Russia. When people around the world see normal people routinely visiting Russia and spending time there, they are more likely to pay attention when these people say positive things about Russia. Unfortunately this situation does not currently exist, or at least most of us normies aren’t visible in the Russian media.
Russia also has an economic disadvantage that distinguishes it from the USSR. Whereas in the USSR, particularly in the Stalin era, a lack of economic parity with the other industrial powers could be explained away by the backwardness from which the country started out. The economic achievements in the Soviet era may not seem like much to us today, but you have to realize that in the USSR you had engineers and scientists whose own parents were raised in dirt-floor huts. Deficiencies after the war could be explained by the war itself. Of course by the 70’s and 80’s the difference between the standards of living in the USSR and European states had few excuses left. Looking to more recent history, Russia suffered a major embarrassment over the Euromaidan movement, because when it initially appeared Russian propagandists could do little but scream about gay people. What could they offer Ukraine? Gas. The problem is that you have Ukrainians who have traveled through Europe and the US, perhaps even China, and then they also have seen Russia as well. Obviously the idea that an association agreement with the European Union would turn Ukraine into Germany is simply ridiculous, but at the very least it makes sense; it’s coherent. Say it again if you don’t believe me. What does Russia have to offer Ukraine? Gas. Hmmm…Isn’t that the same shit Russia’s been giving Ukraine for the past twenty years, with no measurable improvement in the country. Therefore we see how Russia couldn’t even woo it’s own “brother nation” because it has nothing to offer.
So with no positive ideology to garner international support and no real allies other than countries which either have no choice like Belarus or which have a beef with the US like Venezuela, Russia isn’t holding even half the diplomatic capital the USSR had. What they have is oil and gas, and that’s not going to be much leverage in the near future. This is the main problem with the Russian government, not that it’s some kind of “totalitarian” dictatorship with its foot on everyone’s neck, but rather that it is squandering the one thing which could totally transform Russia if properly invested. This is a goose that will stop laying its golden eggs one day, and unfortunately most of those eggs are going into the pockets of a few powerful individuals. This oil and gas wealth needs to be used properly to prepare the country for that time when it can no longer depend on those resources, and that time appears to be fast approaching.
What can explain the ridiculous overreaching of the Kremlin today? My biggest fear is that the government, and perhaps Putin, the “smartest man in the room”, have come to believe their own propaganda. They may have convinced themselves that they have actually achieved the same state as the Soviet Union, obviously discarding the crucial ideological factor. All this means is that if there is to be another Cold War, it’s going to be shorter than the last one and it will once again end badly for Russia. It basically amounts to fighting the last losing war with the same strategy, yet with none of the advantages the USSR possessed. They’re going up against veteran diplomats and intelligence services who have already played this game before, or they can read the works of those who did. While it’s obvious that economic investment in Russia has severely hobbled and embarrassed the West in this fight, they’ve got the economic foundation to play the long game, Russia does not. The best way for Putin to turn this around is to stop listening to pseudo-intellectual hacks who got their jobs due to nepotism. Vladimir, if you’re reading this, stop listening to their sweet lies and embrace the bitter truth. Promoting right-wing populism is easy, and might seem effective, but when everything goes to shit, you want the populace to be full of progressive-minded people, with values like compassion, tolerance, etc. You especially want those values to be widespread if there’s a chance you lose power to them one day. Moreover, that kind of society is attractive to the world, and presents a positive image. The more Russia tries to “kill the world with kindness”, the more absurd the US and Europe will look for hysterically picking on her. Time is running short, so it might be a good idea to consider what Russia has going for it other than gas and oil.