Just read this interesting article about Putin’s view of the state and movements for democratic reform. It’s long so I’ll give you the gist. It basically traces Putin’s view about state authority and legitimacy back to his experience in the DDR in 1989. As you might have guessed, Putin’s personal outlook is authoritarian, with disdain for grassroots political movements and struggles on the grounds that they allegedly lead to “chaos” and a lack of “stability.” This certainly fits in with the Russian media narrative, and it is actually quite a popular idea in Russia.
This is not without good reason. Russia, like many former Soviet Republics and some former Soviet client states, did indeed experience a long, painful period of chaos in the wake of the old system’s collapse. The problem is that people like Putin and his fellow travelers seem to have got things backwards. In their mind, the overthrow of a corrupt or moribund state leads to chaos and anarchy, when in fact corrupt, moribund states tend to foster their own downfall in the form of revolutions. What is more, the more repressive that state is, the more likely you are to see violence in connection with that revolution. As for the results of that revolution, these can be determined by a number of factors, but once again, repressive states that don’t allow a “market for ideas” can lead to very bad ideas coming out on top if the people promoting them have better resources and the will to fight.
I’ve said this plenty of times before and I know it’s tough for many radicals in the West to hear, but one reason why America has Occupy and Ukraine has Maidan is because for all its faults, the American system “works” very well. What I mean is that it gives people a wide range of freedom to express even some of the most heinous ideas, it is liberal when it comes to protests and demonstrations, and even the two-party system gives people a chance to feel like they’re changing something.
Naturally this is when my fellow leftist radicals charge in and say, “BUT ELECTIONS DON’T REALLY CHANGE ANYTHING!” First of all, that’s debatable. Second, it really doesn’t matter. By the end of the Bush administration there was a huge radical anti-war movement and tons of dissent. Then along came Obama, and suddenly debates break out all down the line. Would Obama really offer change? Could people afford not to vote for Obama and risk a McCain presidency?
It worked- we radicals laughed and said “I told you so” to our voting friends when they were disappointed by Obama, but it doesn’t matter- it did the trick. People thought this was a way to change things and they did that instead of going out into the streets with molotov cocktails. Even the Tea Party and their candidates gave angry white yahoos the hope that they could change things via the ballot box instead of the bullet, though to be fair I think most of those “revolutionaries” never had the guts to start something anyway.
Getting back to the topic of Putin’s views towards revolution, I think one tragic aspect is the fact that Putin has increasingly made his fears into a self-fulfilling prophesy, and this was completely avoidable. All he had to do was simply leave office for good in 2012. That’s it. I was talking to a highly experienced expat today about this very topic and we both agreed that had Putin done that, his legacy would be something totally different. Yes, his record would be marred with controversy, but it would probably be no worse than that of George W. Bush. It would actually be better, because Putin did inherent a massive mess and even critical analysts point out that someone else in his position back in 2000 probably would not have been able to deviate much from the path Putin took.
Pondering this more after my conversation today, I thought back to political discussions during my early years in this country and I acknowledge that political discourse became far more Putin-centric in recent years. In the early days, Russians openly complained about the incompetence and corruption of the government, but it wasn’t always “Putin, Putin, Putin.” Critiques were more systemic- the United Russia party, the bureaucrats, etc. Putin was in the picture but he usually wasn’t central to these discussions or complaints. Putin’s cult of personality was sort of a joke- something to slap on tacky souvenirs at Izmailovsky market. I know I didn’t really see Russia’s problems as beginning and ending with Putin either. To me Putin was an over-hyped politician who plastered over the problems of the 90’s without doing anything about their underlying causes.
Then Putin came back, a signal that Russia’s future was now unpredictable- when would he leave and how? Add to this an increasingly aggressive propaganda campaign and a revamping of his personality cult, and you can see why so much revolves around Putin these days. And again, he has nobody to blame but himself. His men said there’s nobody but Putin, and then set out to make that a reality. In the process, they have destroyed genuine civil society so that when he does inevitably go, one way or another, people will have serious trouble organizing themselves to create a functioning state that serves the public. They’ll be easy pickings for nationalist demagogues, oligarch-sponsored fronts, and yes, perhaps even groups whose primary purpose is to advance American or other foreign business interests rather than those of ordinary people.
It’s important to realize that Putin wanted that. He made it this way. He was so afraid of revolution that he deliberately constructed a system where by meaningful change, perhaps even change that Putin would personally like to see, can only come about by revolution. He allowed his cult of personality to grow in such a way that he’s essentially painting a target on his head, taking on all the responsibility for whatever happens in his country. One day the things most Russians cheer as “victories” will rightly be recognized as the nails in the nation’s coffin, and who will they be pointing their fingers at? It could have been Medvedev. It could have been someone completely different. Now it will inevitably be Putin.
All he had to do was walk away, and he probably would have been a hero, if not one with some serious stains on his record. Instead he chose a path to hell, and he’s dragging the country down with him.