Most Americans my age remember growing up with the comic series Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. We read the color editions in the Sunday comics and collected the books. Any fan of the series will surely remember “Calvinball,” a ridiculous made up game played only between the two title characters. The only rules of Calvinball were that you couldn’t play the game the same way twice, and you had to make the rules up as you went along. It’s the perfect metaphor for the authoritarian Russian state today, if not many others.
Usually when we think of something being authoritarian, we imagine lots of rules, i.e. “Do this. Don’t do that.” Sure, such states do have lots of regulations, but a lot of times these are more aimed at maintaining the power structure. The myriad of regulations is what secures jobs for key people, establishes power relationships, and of course opens many opportunities for corruption. Of course rules can be used to repress, but as I’ve written before, this kind of thing doesn’t work so well for 21st century dictatorships. When you use the law to force people to do things, they notice it right away. Therefore the best avenue for repression comes not from imposing lots of rules but doing just the opposite. You don’t define the rules, the limits. You remind people that they are there, and that they are quite close, but you never say exactly where they are. The result is that people react as though they were walking through a minefield. They either tread at a snail’s pace with extreme caution, or they give up and remain still. Either way you remain in control.
There are two very good, very recent examples of this phenomenon in Russia. The first occurred at Vladimir Putin’s press conference last Thursday. Putin was asked what constitutes a “fifth columnist,” and what constitutes an ordinary member of the opposition. Now if Putin actually believed that the Russian system is democratic, he could have claimed that the KPRF and LDPR are oppositionists, since that’s what they nominally are. Of course Putin knows that there is no actual opposition in the government from his point of view; he made sure of that himself. Therefore he did something totally predictable- he started babbling about Lermontov and Pushkin. After going on about these two Russian historical figures, because we all know that you can’t possibly make any argument in Russia without referencing Russian and only Russian historical figures, he said that the line between an oppositionist and a fifth columnist is very thin. Shortly thereafter he abruptly said that a fifth columnist works for the interests of a foreign country and “alien political values” before asking for the next question.
Obviously this “answer” only provokes more questions, just like the one I already proposed regarding the governments de jure “opposition” parties. Who defines what the interests of foreign countries are, and which foreign interests? For example, if Putin claims he wants to improve the economy and bring prosperity to more of Russia, is that not serving the interests of foreign countries? After all, we saw how the prosperous Russian “middle class” of the mid-2000’s spent their money on loads of foreign products and services, not counting the money they spent abroad in those countries. Since Russian prosperity only benefits exporters like the US, are not Putin and his government essentially working for the interests of the US when they claim to be struggling to improve the economy?
What of the “alien” political values? Does Russia ever define it’s own political values? It seems Russian political values are always extremely vague and change drastically according to the needs of those in power. One year Russia’s economic success and wealth in consumer goods was proof that Russia was a real competitor in the global economy. Then as Russia started losing, suddenly consumer goods are “Western” and “decadent,” and people should be satisfied with what they have. Are human rights alien political values? Well they can’t be, because the Kremlin is only too happy to point out the human rights abuses of other nations when it suits its interests. Is caring about the human rights of Russians an alien political value? All of these important questions went unanswered.
The other recent story was the unveiling of Russia’s revised military doctrine. This document details both external and internal threats, and strangely it actually lists terrorism as the second highest domestic threat. But a far more ominous passage mentions “activities which influence the population, especially young citizens of the country, undermining the historical, spiritual, and patriotic traditions of the defense of the fatherland.” This opens the door to even more questions than Putin’s non-answer at the press conference. What kind of “activities?” “Spiritual” traditions? What does that even mean? “Patriotic” traditions? To have patriotic feelings for the Russian empire is to have antagonistic feelings to toward the Soviet Union. To have patriotic feelings for the Soviet Union is to have antagonistic feelings towards the current state. The Russian government and its pseudo-historians can try to smooth over these contradictions all they want; they aren’t going away.
The point to take away from this is that the state and its cronies are ever quick to inveigh and threaten the population for “betraying” their country, being part of a fifth column, incredibly vague “extremism,” and working for the interests of foreign countries, but they always avoid providing any sort of concrete definitions. If they were to do that, everyone would know exactly where the limits are. They might feel restricted, but they would be at ease and less paranoid, not so ideal from power’s point of view. Moreover, if you know the rules, you know the exceptions. Therefore it is much better to force everyone to guess where the boundaries, or more accurately the landmines, are.
In relatively free countries these kinds of rules are strictly defined. If you’re wondering what the US government’s definition of treason is, it’s crystal clear. What sort of work on behalf of foreign countries is illegal in the US? Well it sure as hell isn’t protesting against American police brutality, since that has nothing to do with foreign governments. Now if you were say, acquiring classified knowledge and selling it to the Chinese, well than that would be espionage. While I see Edward Snowden as being morally right, the instructive lesson at least for this topic is that he did break a law, and what happened to Snowden can’t happen to Joe Blow in the US who attends Tea Party rallies and blogs about what a Communist, Islamofascist traitor president Obama is. Actually threaten the president or a public official with bodily harm and yes, you will get a visit from the Secret Service. Keep, sell, or manufacture illegal weapons without the requisite license, assuming such a license exists for the weapon in question, and yes you will be arrested. You cannot, however, be arrested for voting the wrong way in Congress. You are not accused of trying to overthrow the government for taking part in massive demonstrations. In short, the better the rules are defined, the less likely it is for people to break them unintentionally.
I am part of that generation who truly came of political age in the aftermath of September 11th. We remember the introduction of the Patriot Act and all the questions it raised. Warrant-free wire taps? For whom? Why? Indefinite detention without access to legal council for terrorists? Who exactly is a terrorist then? Request for library records? What exactly are we allowed to read without attracting suspicion? The justifiable fear associated with the Patriot Act wasn’t so much a matter of “Damn, now we can’t do such and such anymore,” but rather “What can we still do, without being arrested or at best, spied on?” The Bush administration wanted to play Calvinball with the American people. Indeed, that is what all bourgeois governments are prone to do, even in the most liberal states. If you’re not overthrowing them outright, something I don’t discuss on this blog, the only recourse against this is to continually fight within the system against those who try to amass more power and authority. Those countries whose populations have continually fought to limit the power of their rulers tend to be the most successful in the world today.
Unfortunately, this avenue is denied to the Russian people, who years ago traded their freedom and dignity to Putin and his inner circle in exchange for “stability,” which proved to be short-lived in the end. No one knows what they can do, because the government is playing Calvinball. The only rule is that the rules always change. Yesterday’s humor website can be tomorrow’s “extremist” propaganda network. The blogger who jokes about a park bench in Khabarovsk can be accused not only of “inciting hatred,” but of being the leader of a terrorist underground and plotting to overthrow the Russian government…from Khabarovsk.
The most tragic thing is that it seems the tactic of constantly preaching about the law without actually defining it in concrete terms has worked, and spectacularly so. There are now far too few Russians still willing to carefully pick their way through the minefield. The vast majority, unable to see Putin’s “thin line” and burdened with fear and uncertainty, seem resigned to their fate. They plop down in the mud where they were previously standing, knowing that this immediate patch of ground is safe. There they sit, sinking deeper and deeper into the muck, waiting for their hero to swoop down and pull them out, though it was him that they scorned just a little over a year ago. They don’t understand that their rigid adherence to the rules won’t save them from the elements. When they are finally forced by sheer necessity to shift from their position, the rules will change again and they will step on a mine. The only rule is that there are no rules.