Fear and Weakness in Russia

If you’re not familiar with Cracked.com’s Jason Pargin(aka David Wong), you’re really missing out. Though Pargin is a veteran Cracked writer, I first started paying more attention to him when I started listening to the Cracked podcast. You may call him idealistic, you may call him somewhat out-of-touch, but in my opinion this guy puts forth some very strong ideas and even when I disagree with them they are at least very well argued.

Recently Pargin published an article entitled “6 Ways to Keep Terrorists from Ruining the World.”  In it, the author makes some compelling arguments about the need to resist our primitive urges in response to outrageous attacks like those which recently occurred in Paris. He eviscerates the faulty, child-like logic of those who insist on striking back with reckless abandon and the fear-mongering which causes people to give up cherished freedoms in exchange for protection against threats which are in fact incredibly rare. He also points out that fanatics, of all sorts, are themselves driven by fear. They are by no means cowards, but ultimately they are compelled by a deep-seated fear that the world has rejected them and their ideas, thus they can only rely on force to get them across. To use Pargin’s analogy, an omnipotent god wouldn’t care if humans mocked his prophet, and no truly faithful Muslim would feel their faith shaken by such mockery. It is the Salafists and like-minded fanatics whose faith is weak; they hope that by creating a society whereby their values are imposed on everyone by force, they won’t be tempted and their fragile dedication to the faith won’t be shaken.

I think that this is very applicable to Russia today in a number of ways. Edward Lucas, Timothy Snyder, and other Western media pundits want to portray Russia as a menace to the world. They highlight the ever intensifying crackdown against dissent in Russia and then point to the seizure of the Crimea and the war in the Donbas as proof that there is this rising Russian menace, another “clash of civilizations” if you will. The truth is that this class of civilizations is as much of a fraud as that which was said to exist between the West and “Islam.” Russia isn’t a rival civilization or even an ideological opponent. It is simply a failing dictatorship whose leaders are scrambling to cling to power, knowing that they have nowhere to run. Can it do damage as it collapses, sure. Should the West panic and engage in cowardly hysterics which only please the Kremlin’s pseudo-intellectuals? No.

First let us deal with this alleged threat that Russia poses to the world. It is true to some extent that the Kremlin did not think very much beyond the seizure of Crimea; this was a move of desperation. But to the extent that they did expect some hostile pressure from the West, I think they welcomed it. Putin needed to bring the conflict of the West home to ordinary Russians. When times were good, the majority of people didn’t care about the TV’s droning on about NATO and America’s “grand chessboard” conspiracy. Everyone knew that the problems they saw around them were due to the system, but they had the money to travel abroad, learn foreign languages, buy video game consoles, and amuse themselves with iPhones. Of course Russia’s economy started to take a turn for the worse even before 2014, and there’s a very good chance that Putin was made aware of the storm clouds on the horizon. Actually provoking a real conflict with the West helped distract people before that storm occurred. When the West refused to pass sanctions on Russia that would affect ordinary people, Putin handled that for them with his food imports ban.

While Russia still has the Crimea for the immediate future, it’s very likely that the peninsula is to be the iceberg that sinks the RMS Putin. Providing electricity, water, and social services to the federal subject has proven extremely difficult for the regime. One Putin crony pulled out of the Kerch bridge project. While another Putin crony(of course) stepped in to replace him, there’s still no reason to believe that building this bridge is legally or even physically possible. The Crimea needs major infrastructure support and improvement from a country that has proven itself incapable of keeping such projects from going ridiculously over-budget thanks to corruption. Not to mention the fact that Putin will have to garrison the Crimea with his best and most loyal troops, since whenever Russia’s inevitable economic meltdown occurs, local politicians in the Crimea have a magic ticket to freedom that most Russian regions don’t- referendum.

Many countries possess the military strength to annex a part of their neighbor. This doesn’t mean they can sustain their gains and succeed in the long run. Russia took advantage of a weak, corruption-ridden neighbor and then failed to sustain a successful insurgency in the Donbas; now they are paying the price. This is no Third Reich, or even a Second Reich for that matter. When Western leaders talk about Russia as a menace and a threat, it only strokes the ego of the Kremlin’s main constituency. Getting down in the sandbox with Russia only buys precious time for the regime.

As for the domestic crackdown on freedoms, this is of course primarily a problem for the Russian people. Right now many people have elected to go into a fantasy world where Putin knows best and the country will endure any hardship, but they know better. They know this society doesn’t care for them and they also know that Putin and his elite live in a completely different world than them. It is a world of summer-long vacations in the south of France, fishing trips in Norway, expensive restaurants, luxury cars, Swiss watches, and palaces surrounded by three-meter-high walls.  They know that when Putin or one of his cronies talks about “we,” there is no “we.” Since 1991 Russians have lived in a callous, dog-eat-dog society and nothing substantial changed. Even in the middle of the last decade when living standards were high due to oil prices,  sound policy, and cheap credit, Russia never solved the social problems of the 90’s.  Every ordinary citizen knows this whether they will still openly admit it or not.

One must always keep this in mind when reading about the latest crackdown by authorities, whether it’s threats against films which supposedly break down “national unity” and “values,” or laws which ban “undesirable companies” that supposedly pose a “threat” to the security of the state. Instead of acting as if Russia is turning into a new Third Reich that is menacing Europe, as yourself the following:

How strong can a state be if its leaders believe it can be threatened by movies, TV shows, NGOs, and random companies?

Oh yes, I know that there are US-funded NGOs that promote policies favorable to the US, but here’s the thing: If your state and society is healthy and in good shape, those organizations would be utterly ineffective. The US knows damned well that they can’t send NGOs into European welfare states and get people to overthrow their governments just to privatize their pensions and healthcare systems. When it comes to social problems, these countries have functioning civil society organizations and non-profits, which precludes any American attempt to dominate in that field.  This argument, which assumes anyone who doesn’t obey Moscow’s wishes must be a marionette of the US State Department is insulting and childish. It’s also projection, given the Russian government’s well-known practice of using bribes and gifts to organize political organizations and swell their ranks at rallies.

How weak is Russia that it is threatened by movies? Why is it so weak after 15 years under this supposedly great Russian leader, for whom there is no replacement? There can be no debate on this matter of weakness. The Russian side insists that they are in a conflict with the West, yet we don’t see the United States or its allies adopting law after law restricting protesting, blocking websites, harassing media entities, and so on. The Russian state is not strong. It’s pathetically weak. Strong states are not threatened by movies and websites, period.

In fact the United States is a great example of this. Only ten years after the ratification of the constitution which enshrined freedom of speech among other rights, the John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Act, which made criticism of the federal government illegal. In the antebellum period, the slave-owning class used its power within government to suppress and intimidate abolitionists. In “Bleeding Kansas,” the so-called “Border Ruffians” from Missouri demanded that the new territorial government ban criticism of slavery. Southerners sent threatening letters to Harriet Beecher Stowe for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unable to defend their so-called rights in open debate, they had to resort to violence and the force of the state.

The militant labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century saw more crackdowns, deportations, and extra-legal intimidation of people deemed to be a threat to order in America. The First World War brought the Espionage Act, which has the notorious honor of being responsible for the jailing of a filmmaker for creating what he thought would be seen as a patriotic film about the American revolution.  Then you’ve got the Palmer raids, the Smith Act, the era of McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, etc.  Fast forward to today and a simple search on Youtube reveals dozens of men showing off their military equipment and weapons, declaring themselves ready to defend themselves from the federal government if necessary. Neo-Nazi groups hold festivals on their private land and declare that they will one day overthrow the US government in a “white revolution.” Neo-confederates hold public conferences and speak about secession. Hell, the governor of Texas openly talked about secession.  Don’t get excited, geopolitical experts. If there were any real danger of secession, the president would have done something about it.

That’s just the point, though. The reason America let’s people run around on their own land with AR-15’s imagining that they’re training for a coming guerrilla war against the feds, the reason why it allows people to sling their weapons and attend anti-government protests in public squares, is because the government isn’t afraid. It’s not just that it’s not afraid of these people because they know they could splatter them all day long with drones either. It’s mainly because they know that Johnny electric scooter with his tricorne hat, Ruger Mini-14, and cardboard sign about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants isn’t likely to do jack shit. He’ll go to his little protest and scream himself hoarse about his crushing tax burden and how that $60 the feds take out of his paycheck is the one thing keeping him from starting his own business and becoming a millionaire captain of industry, but when it’s all over him and all the other barrel-chested white guys are going to get back in their SUVs and hit Wal-Mart on the way home to get some ridiculous deals on double-stuff Oreos and Hungry-Man brand TV dinners.

I’m not just going to pick on the right here either. From the government’s perspective the worst thing any left-wing demonstration is going to lead to is property destruction, maybe a little arson and looting here and there. Yet that level of rebellion has often been matched if not exceeded by less political events such as championship victories, Woodstock ’99, and that pumpkin festival riot. Yeah, I just wrote that. Dozens of left-wing protests by super radical black block anarchists were eclipsed in terms of revolutionary violence by a pumpkin festival. Like their Tea Party equivalents, most of these people will go back to their daily lives of consumption and entertainment.

The US government has certainly failed to maintain its standards of living in recent decades, but even when it fails it survives because aside from having a competitive if not very narrow political system, it allows people to gripe, protest, and carry around signs that say, “We came unarmed, this time!” Even if there isn’t much pluralism in the government, there’s pluralism in the discourse. If you’re not satisfied with mainstream conservatives, there’s always Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, or Alex Jones. If you’re fed up with Democratic “bipartisanship” there’s shows like The Young TurksThe Daily Show, and Democracy Now! If you’re sick of the entire US media there’s the CBC, BBC, Al Jazeera, and even RT.

Russia’s leaders can’t allow that kind of pluralism and freedom. They know that they have stolen from their people, in fact they have stolen their entire future. When oil prices were high like the growth rates, they had little reason to worry. Russians were happy to ignore politics and pursue their own interests. Now that things are bad, however, there’s no longer enough to satisfy everyone. Naturally when it comes down to the Russian people and their masters, the latter decide in favor of themselves first and foremost. In this system the people only get what spills over.

This is why they wrap themselves in the flag and preach about patriotism and national values. They know they have betrayed their country and its people, but they believe that passing all kinds of “patriotic” legislation will keep people from realizing this. They know they are immoral, in fact amoral, yet they actually believe nobody will realize it so long as they constantly preach about defending morality. In case they do realize it, the laws will keep them from speaking out. They believe that by preaching about morality, people will assume they are moral. They claim to be defending Russian culture, but in fact they are destroying it because they increasingly rely on Russia’s worst, most incompetent members of society while fearing and suppressing its most talented. This is the natural result of rewarding and encouraging “patriotism” based on empty phrases and useless gestures.

They’re afraid, and they feel the need to force patriotism on the Russian people because they cannot provide anything that would give people a reason to be patriotic. Whereas the US and Western countries at least maintain naive hopes among their population, Russia’s population has never recovered from the cynicism of the 90’s, and Putin’s regime positively thrives on it.  Thus they talk about banning or at least limiting foreign films to support their own cinema, yet when they attempt to produce a patriotic film it ends up being more insulting to the Russian people and their history than anything Hollywood has ever made. Perhaps it’s because just like Russia’s leadership, their star filmmakers can’t hide their utter contempt for their countrymen even as they attempt to teach them lessons in patriotism.

Fear, dear readers. Every crackdown, every new law, every hysterical conspiracy theory of this regime is nothing but an expression of fear. They looked at Maidan and realized how a little spark over one issue led to the flight of a president and the collapse of his party. Unlike Yanukovych, many of these people have nowhere to run. Thus they must distract the Russian people as long as possible, stealing every last ruble they can get their hands on, hoping to buy time to figure out what they’re going to do. For those people who aren’t so easily distracted, they empower and organize the worst of Russian society, thugs and hooligans, and turn them loose on the only people who could actually save Russia, the educated, the intellectuals, the people with new ideas. Those people are dangerous to a guilty, traitorous leadership which has nothing of value to offer the people. In short, they aren’t courageously standing up for Russia’s values because they have no values. They are flailing in the dark at phantoms, accusing them of being financed by the US because they are too afraid to acknowledge their responsibility. They are scared out of their wits.

The Russian regime can ban all the films, NGOs, companies, and organizations it likes. It can organize thugs to harass even the smallest demonstrations. This is what regimes do when they’re scared- back arched, hairs raised, tail all puffed up. Ultimately, however, none of this will save them. All it does is intensify the amount of hate they will find arrayed against them when they can no longer contain the pressure that they built up in society. The more brutally they crack down, the more brutal the reaction will be when the explosion comes. It’s a difference between early retirement and being dragged bloody through the street by a shouting mob. Let them crow about patriotism and defending their values. They’re just sowing the wind.

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5 thoughts on “Fear and Weakness in Russia

  1. Estragon

    I am Facebook-friended to some of the thought leaders of non-Russian Putinism. Their current line is that the sanctions are actually a good thing because they will push Russia to get its house in order: develop local industries, agriculture and so on, and finally cut links with the decadent West while it pivots to Asia. I can’t tell if they really believe this, or if they’re just desperate to put a positive face on things.

    Reply
    1. Chukuriuk

      As you probably know, Adomanis wrote an op-ed in the MT on this fantasy:
      http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/without-eu-cash-russian-business-is-sunk/504392.html
      “To work properly … a policy of import substitution requires a liberalized and flexible domestic economy and an efficient, transparent and noncorrupt government. Only with these conditions can truly competitive firms emerge to fill the gap left by foreigners. Otherwise you end up with politically connected and inefficient firms that produce goods that, in comparison with the world market, are too expensive for their actual quality. In other words, if you try import substitution and don’t pull it off, you end up with a perfect recipe for economic stagnation.”

      Reply
    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I usually block these people because 1. It’s like talking to a cult member, and 2. Many of them barely spent any time in Russia if at all. So they’ll read some news piece and say “See? It’s not so bad,” not realizing that what they are showing is not representative. Many of them take the GDP per capita and point to its rise under Putin, not realizing that in Russia that kind of income can’t buy you any rights. On a whim the leaders can pass a new law and suddenly your business or one of the businesses it relies on is banned overnight. Social mobility means living in Moscow and living in Moscow eventually means paying astronomical amounts of money for an apartment that’s going to be outside of Moscow and commuting into work with the herd every day.

      Reply
  2. Dimitri

    “They are flailing in the dark at American phantoms because they are scared out of their wits.”

    They’re afraid of their own people, terrified in fact. I think you’re saying the same thing, but I don’t think they’re afraid of the US. It’s a status quo power, they know it won’t do anything. They just use it for purposes of constructing straw men.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Inside the mind of the Putinoids | Russia Without BS

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