Indeed, my posts have been rather few and far between in recent months. Obviously moving to another country entails a lot of hassles, but aside from that there’s the fact that I’m in Ukraine and no longer in Russia. What is more, I’m in the process of changing professions. Does that mean I’m going away for good? No, not a chance. Now is the time to work on my book and explore other forms of media. That being said, I recently saw an article that made me think I could retire- it was that good.
The article in question is by Keith Gessen, and apart from a few comments I might add here and there it is spot on. It’s not just that it’s so right, it’s that it reminds me of a post that I did in the early days of this blog in 2013, when virtually no one read it.
Back in those days, several months before Maidan, this blog wasn’t intended to be political. I, in fact, had already largely given up on politics and retreated into my own world of traveling with my wife, movies, history, video games, all buttressed by that seductive but dangerous expat privilege that lulls you into complacency with its siren song. There will always be work. There’ll always be next month’s salary and your end-of-contract bonus. The blog was just catharsis, a late reaction to past years of poor Russia journalism which would rapidly improve in 2014.
One of those early posts was about Vladimir Putin, who had long been made the embodiment of Russia both by Western and Russian state media. My logic was that if people were going to be obsessively writing about Putin, they should write about the actual man, not the myth- be that myth one of the brave national leader standing up to Western hegemony or the evil KGB-agent Bond villain.
Looking back I think I got one major thing wrong (something which I’d write about in years since then), and unfortunately I didn’t see it mentioned in the article linked above so I’ll add it here. It is the myth of Putin the “moderate,” the idea that Putin is necessary because he is holding back dangerous nationalists who mustn’t be allowed to get control of Russia and its military arsenal. For me, this was the only myth about Putin that survived my conversations with emigres and expats just before moving to Russia.
It is important to understand the context of those days. This was 2006, the boom, the peak of collaboration between Russia and the West. While there were certainly some hiccups during those years, in general Western business was thrilled with Russia and vice versa. This is when all that bullshit you hear now about Russia opposing the West or rejecting material comfort for spiritual or ideological values would just provoke side-splitting laughter. The Russians, headed by Putin and theoretically by Medvedev, were enthusiastically inviting Western investment (and in a way, they still are, which is why they rail against the sanctions). Russia under Putin had become a sort of semi-colonial state, with Putin as the local collaborator extracting its resources and pimping out its population.Looking back on that relationship, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had the two lovers, the European Union and Russia, not had their historic falling out over Ukraine.
It is in that context that Putin-as-moderate seemed to make sense. After all, this was a man whose circle of close friends were exploiting their own people essentially for the sake of the West. As such it was only understandable that opposition to Putin would take on an anti-Western character. In those days, I wasn’t aware as to the extent much of this opposition was managed, sometimes even created by the Kremlin.Some of these opposition groups had politics so unsavory that you actually hoped they’d never succeed in overthrowing Putin as much as you hated him…and that was the whole point.
That’s also the problem with Putin-as-moderate. Sure, there are a lot of scary, supposedly ideologically-driven people in Russian politics who espouse dangerous and aggressive ideas, but none of those people would ever get into power. Probably the only one who could even conceivably hold a position of leadership would be Dmitry Rogozin, who at the moment is fiercely loyal to Putin and thus could only come to power upon his master’s absence. As for people like Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov, I highly doubt they ever seriously think about being president of Russia. That ship has long since sailed. And as for scary folks like Dugin, Kurginyan, Strelkov, et al, they’re even further from the circle of power. There’s no evidence that Dugin has even ever met Putin, and it’s hard to imagine the president having a serious meeting with a man who basically looks like a hobo who found some slightly better clothes. Many Russians, even ones who are quite politically-minded, don’t even know Dugin’s name (yes, I’ve checked). That being the case, I think it’s pretty obvious that we won’t be seeing President Dugin after Putin kicks the bucket.
But what if we imagine that there really is some extremist threat that Putin’s supposedly holding back, does that justify Putin-as-moderate? Well no, because the fact is that the presidential administration deliberately cultivates and manages many of these groups. Russian football hooligans and nationalists were once coddled by the Kremlin, especially when they were beating up opposition activists in the mid-2000s. Over the years, however, they started to become a liability. Putin’s apparent subservience to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov drove many far-rightists into the opposition around 2011 and 2012. The war in Ukraine created a split in Russia’s far-right, where many reactionaries again rallied to the Kremlin’s imperial colors, but those who failed to do so have once again faced a crackdown. It is pure fantasy to think that the Kremlin is done playing games with far-right nationalists, however. When they are necessary, the Kremlin will use them as it sees fit. Thus Putin is not holding them back- he’s basically keeping them alive.
The same can be said for every bombastic, aggressive figure in Russia’s political scene. Thus if Putin were somehow overthrown by a coup that puts worse people in power, it lesson wouldn’t be that Putin was a moderate holding back the tides- he created the tides. But that’s not the only problem with the Putin-as-moderate theme.
Let us imagine, for the moment, that all of the above was not the case. The far-right, aggressive forces in Russian politics came into existence naturally and organically, without being groomed by the Kremlin. Let us imagine that Putin really was trying to be a moderate, an internationalist, a liberal, or whatever. If this were the case, and if Putin were actually competent, why would he even be in such a situation? When we look at the horrors of the 90’s, it’s kind of understandable as to why Russia faced the threat of extremist groups coming to power. The Yeltsin government revealed itself to be rather extremist itself if you count what happened in 1993 and the 1999 apartment bombings. But what about the boom time? What about the Putin fanboys’ claim that he raised Russia from her knees, out of that 90’s torpor? Why would the extremist elements, whose existence was understandable in the context of the 90’s, still constitute the same threat more than a decade into Putin’s allegedly wise rule?
Of course that is just a hypothetical scenario, but it demonstrates how even when you accept a certain number of Putin apologist assumptions, you still come around to the same conclusion- Putin is incompetent.
These days one hardly hears the Putin-as-moderate defense. Since his annexation of the Crimea that load of bullshit has become harder to sell, particularly when Putin himself has taken to spouting the same rhetoric as the extremists who allegedly oppose him. To be sure, there is a threat that Putin may be replaced by a more reactionary, aggressive faction upon his death or should he be incapacitated and unable to rule, but if that happens it will be the fault of his administration. Through its state-run media, through the schools, and its many manipulated organizations and front groups, the Putin administration has fueled xenophobia, paranoia, and reactionary ideology. Democracy, human rights, and tolerance have been made dirty words. In such an environment, is it any surprise that the most likely successor to Putin or his regime might be someone who takes those reactionary values to heart and sincerely believes in them?