A typical Western Russophile argument, launched whenever there is talk of Russia being a dictatorship, is that Russia can’t possibly be a dictatorship because it has lots of different newspapers. Indeed, there are many newspapers in Russia and a few of them are quite critical of the government. I often find this argument amusing, if only because were the Russian government to shut down any of these newspapers, those same Russophiles would be the first in line to declare that this was totally justified, as the paper in question was no doubt a foreign-financed propaganda organ aimed at supporting the overthrow of the government. Nonetheless, so long as there are critical publications like Novaya Gazeta, Team Russia will uphold this as proof that Russia as has much freedom of press as the US or any European country.
Of course this claim is nonsense. It doesn’t take much searching to find yet another story about the Russian state harassing independent media sources, or mysterious violent assaults on people who work for such outlets or independent organizations. But if we ignore all the harassment, assaults, and selectively applied laws and regulations, this argument does nothing to prove that Russia isn’t a dictatorship. The problem is that our understanding of dictatorships is totally flawed. It proceeds largely from Hannah Arendt’s deeply flawed concept of “totalitarianism” at best, and at worst it comes from dystopian science fiction like 1984 or the far more recent V for Vendetta. We have been conditioned to assume dictatorships must consist of uniformly grey apartment blocks, murals of the Great Leader, and loudspeakers blaring political propaganda. The state ceaselessly works to stamp out any dissent, even unvoiced mental dissent, i.e. “thought crime.” The media, apart from the aforementioned ubiquitous loudspeakers, consists of omnipresent TV screens with presenters blathering on and on about the Glorious Great Leader’s most recent accomplishments and the need to weed out enemies of the state.
Books and films about this sort of dictatorship appeal to us because their heroes are always vastly outnumbered underdogs challenging the system. We have been taught that dictatorships and oppressive systems thrive off of conformity, and of course we don’t want to conform. We’d like to believe that we’d be that one person who, in spite of the threat of torture or death, would defiantly shout that 2 + 2 = 4. Unfortunately, this sort of dictatorship, particularly in the post-war era, is virtually non-existent. The closest you get is North Korea. Few dictatorships ever achieved that level of control. What is more, dictatorships of this sort don’t manage to get join the ranks of the wealthiest industrial countries; more often than not, they are financed and controlled by them instead.
In the post-war era, every country needs to portray itself as a democracy, no matter how spurious the claim might be. In the post-Cold War era, countries are expected to attract foreign investment, tourism, and to allow their citizens to travel. South Vietnam was a dictatorship, but I think their are few who would have claimed that it had strict rules and regulations. On the contrary, it was famous for graft, corruption, and nepotism. The same could be said for Iran under the Shah. Yes, these governments cracked down hard, but on dissent, not so much in general. They always put on a show for their Western patrons. This modern reality has made life very hard for more traditional dictatorships such as that of the late Saddam Hussein. The secret to running a successful modern dictatorship comes not from crackdowns, mass arrests, and loudspeakers, but rather from the absence of rule of law. For this reason, a modern dictatorship can sometimes seem freer than countries where rule of law exists.
To take one simple example, one of the most striking things I noticed about Russia when I returned in 2006 was the lax attitude toward intellectual property. In open markets, in little kiosks dotting the streets, and sometimes even on tables in underground crosswalks, one could find people hawking not only pirate DVDs, but even pirate software and games. I’m not complaining; I lived alone in a small town and I was thrilled that I could buy the entire Call of Duty series on one disc for about 150-200 rubles. By contrast, the entertainment lobby in the US kept pushing for more and more Draconian laws against piracy. Do I need to bring up SOPA here?
While pirate movies and software might seem trivial, Russia has also been known for businesses keeping rather creative books, black salaries which are exempt from taxation, and attempts to get apartment owners to pay taxes on their property has often proven fruitless. Tax evasion in Russia is actually a necessity. The economy and millions of workers literally depend on it, and thus the government usually turns a blind eye. It also, of course, turns a blind eye to bribery and embezzlement, almost. Due to the masses of bureaucrats with their hands out, business in Russia entails bribery and graft as a necessity, but of course this is against the law. This means that everyone who does business of any sort must become dirty, and if they should run afoul of the wrong person, that dirt can be used to hang them. It worked on Khodorkovsky, it worked on Navalny, and the latest victim might be Vladimir Yevtushenkov.
Whether you’re a businessman, a journalist, an entertainer, or even a performance artist, you can’t be sure as to where the boundaries lie. The modern dictatorship doesn’t necessarily crush you under the weight of countless rules and regulations; they may exist but be rarely enforced. It’s only when you cross the wrong person, someone with power, that you suddenly find yourself getting the hammer. Thus, instead of being controlled by the state, you control yourself because you’re afraid of crossing one of those invisible lines. Not that staying within the lines will necessarily save you. In short, there’s a reason why I decided not to have anything to do with any political activities in Russia whatsoever several years ago. There’s a reason why I don’t translate my work into Russian and distribute it more around the Russian internet. There’s a reason I don’t go seeking lots of attention in the media for “exposure.” And there’s a reason why I wrote all of that just now. It pays to be the “grey man.”
What of politics then? Successful modern dictatorships are those which can create a plausible illusion of liberal democracy. Russia does have, in theory, opposing parties and contested elections, does it not? Well if we ignore the ridiculously strict rules about party and candidate registration and the constant accusations of rigged elections, Russia’s mainstream opposition parties don’t offer much opposition. KPRF, the so-called Communist party seems happy to support the Russian oligarchy now that the Crimea has been annexed. Liberal Democratic Party leader Zhirinovsky has suggested that elections be done away with entirely, and that the rank of “Supreme Commander” be conferred on Vladimir Putin. Strange actions for supposed opposition parties. The one member of the Duma who dared stand against the tide now fears for his life. In the US, failing to vote your party line can get you into some hot water, at least with your own party, but you won’t be accused of treason and be forbidden to leave the country. Yeah yeah, I know. Information war. Russia’s surrounded by enemies! But I thought that Russia has risen from her knees? I thought Putin saved Russia from the chaos of the 90’s and now it’s the West that’s decaying. So shouldn’t it be the West clamping down on their press and forcing their politicians to stay in line? Aren’t they afraid of the rising Russian bear? If Russia is still fighting from an unequal position, why is it still unequal? Has Russia risen from her knees or not? Are the 90’s behind Russia or not? Fuck it. Don’t even answer.
Of course Team Russia always swears up and down that they have criticisms of the government. Oh they’re just bursting with all kinds of scathing criticism! Turns out though, the criticism is always safe. The problem with Putin is always that he’s not being tough enough. He’s not doing enough to ram some contrived “ideology” down everyone’s throat. That way, in case he does decide to do that at a later date, he can always claim that he is giving in to popular demand. “They wanted me to censor the internet! They wanted me to make religious schooling mandatory! They wanted me ban this or that.” Any truly scathing criticism of Russian society is met with, “But that happens in America too,” even when it doesn’t, or at least not to that degree. As if that is supposed to solve any problems here. So much for criticism.
Western journalists do carry a heavy share of blame for misrepresenting the nature of Russia’s dictatorship. They seem to be stuck in a Cold War paradigm, with the USSR as a model. They invoke Stalin even as the Russian state increasingly yet subtly erases the vestiges of socialism and replaces them with the glorification of Tsarism, imperialism, and clericalism. Worse still, every time they try to portray Russia in that sci-fi dictatorship mold, even casual observers and short term visitors to Russia get confused if not offended. Casually browsing groups on the Russian social network VK.com is enough to dispel the idea that life in Russia resembles a dystopian science fiction novel. The most offensive dissent is tolerated, so long as it is rendered impotent and disorganized. Then again, you still have to be careful.
That is the last feature of the modern dictatorship. These states love to portray themselves as strong, but they cannot help but reveal their weakness. Only a weak state fears bloggers, performance artists, and old women running charity organizations for soldiers. More specifically, those in power realize that they are trapped in their position. At first they felt secure because they eliminated any real political opposition. Unfortunately, in the process they eliminated not only any potential leader who could carry on the business of running the state after they leave, but they have also eliminated every mechanism of changing the political system besides violent revolution. They now have a tiger by the tail and cannot let go. That is why they gambled on the disastrous seizure of the Crimea, and the bizarre tragic comedy of “Novorossiya” in Eastern Ukraine. Like a compulsive gambler tossing the keys of his car into the pot, they’re willing to do anything to distract the people just a bit longer, anything for a few more months of high approval rating in the polls. If the people get fucked six months to a year down the road, who cares? What will they do? Vote for someone else?
There’s the paradox though; they can’t vote. They can only rebel. Friends could stab you in the back and ride the masses’ rage to power, and as soon as they get that power, they’ll deliver you up to a crowd that’s demanding blood. So that’s why you’ve got to crack down on bloggers, mimes, people holding invisible placards, musicians, journalists, artists, doctors, and so on. That’s why yesterday’s regime supporter needs to be careful about what they say today or tomorrow. Everybody must be kept in line with those invisible borders. Mass protest movements which topple governments can start with the most innocuous incidents, as both Arab Spring and Euromaidan proved. Those in power in Russia know damned well that people don’t throng to public squares and riot simply because the US State Department is paying them. They also know full well that they pay people to show up to their rallies, or compel or at least cajole state employees into attending such events. They know the grievances of many of these people are real, probably better than the protesters themselves.
Worse still, they know that many of their citizens have been abroad, and whether they will admit it in public today, they know deep down that something is very wrong with Russia’s way of life. In spite of being one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, you wouldn’t know it driving through provincial Russia or even walking through some parts of the capital. You wouldn’t know it from the fact that Russia’s economy barely tops that of the state of California. No Russian citizen can be blind to the fact that in other industrialized countries, politicians and leaders change every few years. Even in China the leadership is almost entirely cleaned out and replaced with some regularity. But in Russia there’s only Putin. Even Medvedev wasn’t good enough for a second term. It’s got to be Putin. He’s the only choice; he saved Russia. Yet if he saved Russia, why has it only produced one person capable of leading the state in over a decade? Never mind, it’s just another one of those inconvenient questions.
Taking into account these facts, it’s no wonder the government is tripling the budget for its media machine and massively increasing military spending in spite of the fact that the finance minister has already declared the spending unrealistic. No wonder they’ve enacted more laws against the poorly-defined “extremism” and against independent media. To stave off the inevitable, they’ll resort to more traditional dictatorial methods, but none of it will work in the end. The USSR tried to fight against popular force and did so from a much more advantageous position. This was not enough to save it. I’m afraid all these traditional dictatorship tactics, dredged up by minds who have long since departed from reality and which took the wrong lessons from history, will only prevent Russia rising from the ashes after it’s all over. More likely than not, the man who usurps Putin will do so based on the promise that he will be the strong hand Russia needs, that he is a true patriot, and that he, not Putin, is capable of restoring Russia’s empire. Then the cycle of theft and corruption will begin anew with different names, and the process of decay and destruction of Russia will continue unabated.