Let me be frank. I had planned a long polemical post about Ukraine’s recent ban on the “Communist” Party of Ukraine (I’m sorry I won’t write that without quotation marks), and how it fits in with decommunization in general, but some other business came up and frankly my heart’s not in it at the moment. With topics like that I’ve decided that you’ve got to go hard or don’t go at all. Lucky for us, however, there’s no shortage of news coming out of Russia, so the Ukrainian government gets a little breather…for now.
A while back I wrote about some strange behavior of the Kremlin, which as of late definitely seems to be anticipating some kind of mass unrest. Some recent updates seem to confirm this point of view. I have to say this is puzzling to me, and not because I take the president’s high approval rating at face value. It’s confusing because it’s not clear exactly what the authorities are afraid of.
If we’re completely honest, we know at some level the powers that be should have an understanding as to what constitutes a serious threat to their rule. Publicly they may rant about gays, performance artists, and other trivial bullshit that supposedly poses an existential threat to this great Russian superpower, but in private there must be people who understand where the real threats are. This is their job. They must have some measure of competence, at least behind closed doors. Right? Right?
If we go with this explanation, then it suggests that the authorities, most likely the security forces, know about some gathering threat that the rest of us don’t clearly see at the moment. Perhaps there’s no legions of people ready to create that mass unrest the government is so afraid of, but maybe the latter is anticipating some coming economic catastrophe which they think might serve as a catalyst.
On the other hand, maybe they truly are largely incompetent, which is an equally debatable position. Groupthink can affect even the most professional institutions, and the peculiar nature of Russia’s system fosters groupthink to a much higher degree. In other words, it is entirely possible that many people in the halls of power have convinced themselves that small opposition parties and other marginalized groups are in fact somehow poised to overthrow them, and that this could actually be feasible with the sudden arrival of American aid that the authorities have hitherto been unable to find.
The point is, I just don’t see this threat the authorities are afraid of. Yes, the economy is in a nose dive with no end in sight. Yes, standards of living are dropping. Yes, Putin’s blame the West line is starting to wear thin, just barely. Still, I don’t really see people so brainwashed with the “stability uber alles” mindset coming out in the street until you start seeing things like widespread malnutrition and starvation or people’s elderly relatives freezing to death in the winter (which given Russia’s issues with utilities is entirely possible eventually).
Now to be fair, I failed to predict the opposition protests in 2011. This was based on experience with ordinary Russians and how apathetic they were toward politics. In 2007 everyone I talked to expected the Duma elections to be rigged but they simply didn’t care. Many of them were doing too well in their personal life to be concerned over trivial matters such as who was in charge of their country. Their mistake, I guess. But in spite of that apathy, one thing you definitely had in 2011 was a lot of people willingly to publicly voice their dissatisfaction. The Kremlin still put out its “NATO encirclement,” patriotic propaganda, but most people just seemed to roll their eyes. So while I didn’t expect the protests, I could at least understand where they came from.
These days I still don’t see that. Out of fear or cowardice, many Russians, including those who should know better, have drunk the Flavor Aid (Yes, Flavor Aid. Read your Jonestown history!). I have often struggled to explain to other foreigners what this is like. The best analogy I can come up with is one in which you and a friend are both die hard Star Wars fans. You both hate the prequels and you constantly trade jokes about how terrible The Phantom Menace was.Your complaints coincide 100% every time.
Then one day you make a joke about The Phantom Menace and your friend suddenly gets visibly offended. They tell you that The Phantom Menace is brilliant film and if you do not recognize it as such, you obviously hate the whole Star Wars series. At first you think your friend is joking. You want to see how he’ll ironically defend Jar Jar Binks, or little Anakin. He goes off on a long monologue about how brilliant both these characters are. You begin to realize he’s not joking. You ask him how he could hold this opinion now when it is 180 degrees the opposite of what he had said for years. His answers are evasive. He begins to talk about other film series which are allegedly worse. “You don’t like the prequels? And I suppose you think The Matrix trilogy was brilliant, don’t you?!”
That’s about as simple as I can break it down. Right now, while many people are still grumbling among themselves, publicly it looks like the majority still consists of confirmed Jar Jar supporters (Psst! “Jar Jar” is Putin). That doesn’t mean they’ll actually put any effort into defending the current regime; it just means they aren’t going to be pouring out into the streets any time soon.
Granted, I’ve been wrong about these things before. To hedge my bets I should remind the reader that uprisings and revolutions don’t always come from well-organized opposition movements. When the system breaks down, people can be faced with the choice of starvation and death or getting out into the streets and forcing change. It could very well be that the authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to keep that system running at a level considered acceptable by the majority. That being said, at this moment I don’t see any convincing evidence of storm clouds on the horizon.
With that in mind we’ll have to see what 2016 brings. What we’re most likely to see is the Goble-types predicting imminent total collapse after every scandal, while the Kremlin cheerleaders seize upon anything that can be spun as good news and present it as proof that Russia has weathered the worst of the crisis, and now it’s only a matter of time before the degenerate West collapses the way it was supposed to ten to twenty years ago. In other words, let’s be really cautious and take everything with a grain of salt.