So seeing as how this blog is called Russia Without Bullshit and is dedicated to exposing terrible journalism about Russia, it is only logical that the first post ought to have something about President Vladimir Putin. When it comes to bullshit about Russia, it doesn’t get thicker than the mythology which surrounds Putin. Think I’m joking? Take a look at this.
Now you may object and say, “But that’s an article from Cracked, which is a humor website, not a real news organization! Also I live in my parents house despite having obtained a four-year degree and being well into my twenties. I enjoy masturbating to cartoon characters before crying myself to sleep, ” While I am not going to dignify your candid admissions with any response other than that you need to learn to develop what people call a “social filter,” I have two points to make in regards to this objection. First, Cracked is indeed a “humor” site but it isn’t funny. Second, the article in question is basically just the distillation of years of idiotic journalism from real news organizations into one failed attempt at humor. When Luke Harding can make a successful career at the Guardian by pretending to be James Bond, it’s only natural that readers will see the Putin-as-Bond-villain comparison as believable. Now you might also object and say something like, “Hey! My first objection didn’t say anything about living at home or jerking off to cartoons, you lying dickhead!” Well…Yeah. I guess.
Before sitting down to write this I went over all the things I thought needed to be said about this subject and in the end I decided that the most efficient and coherent way to organize an article of this magnitude is to structure it in a somewhat FAQ-like format. Before proceeding, however, please take the time to carefully read the following disclaimer.
The following article may cause severe buttanger if viewed by journalists, American Russian-studies majors who have never spent significant(if any) time in Russia, Russian liberals, Putin fanboys, wannabe Russians, Ron Paul cultists, and anybody else the author personally hates. In case of buttmad, seek medical attention immediately.
Yes, Putin was an agent for the KGB. No, that is not particularly relevant.
It often seems that many journalists outside of Russia live in fear of an editor who will can their asses if they fail to include the words “ex-KGB agent” in an article about Putin. Strangely, I don’t remember seeing articles referring to George Bush Sr. as “ex-CIA director Bush,” but I’m sure there is a perfectly logical explanation for that which doesn’t have anything to do with sensationalizing otherwise boring stories so as to boost readership. Let’s just get this one over with. The KGB doesn’t exist anymore. The state it served has been gone for over twenty years. The agency was actually split in two, the FSB(for domestic affairs) and SVR(foreign intelligence). No doubt Putin learned a lot from his past work in an organization which had by that time come to amass far too much power, but more often than not his previous job simply isn’t relevant to the story which mentions it. When Putin is discussing matters concerning the WTO with his cabinet I doubt he starts his sentences with, “You know in the KGB we would…” He’s also not strengthening his relations with foreign leaders by surreptitiously slipping sodium thiopental into their tea.
Why does Putin get such bad press in the West?
Team Russia people like to believe in some kind of “information war” between the US and Russia. In reality, the bad press about Putin in the West is in fact his greatest propaganda. When a Western news outlet releases another “Putin’s making Russia strong and we should be scared of this” story, it implies two things which help Putin; the first is that he is making Russia stronger, the second is that the West is afraid of this allegedly strong Russia. This is exactly what Putin needs.
More than any kind of US State Department conspiracy, the drive to make Putin a bogeyman in the press stems mainly from sensationalism and the need to attract attention. Stories about a big scary resurgent Russia and a “new Cold War” attract attention. The other factor is the Cold War legacy of reducing Russian affairs down to one guy.
So did Putin make Russia stronger?
The answer depends on how one defines “strong” and also how one answers the question of who this “strength” actually benefits. Team Russia fans love to point to Russia’s improvements since the 90’s and crediting all of them to Putin. There are a number of problems with this, however. The first is that while Russian liberals, Team West, and Team Russia fanatics love to sever Putin from the 90’s and the incompetent Yeltsin with his circle of oligarch cronies, Putin actually owes his political career to Yeltsin, or even more specifically, to Boris Berezovsky.
The second factor to consider is that really Russia had little room in which to move except up. Had it continued on the downward spiral of the 90’s, it would have become a failed state, possibly partially disintegrating. Surpassing Yeltsin in competence was not a difficult accomplishment. Moreover, much of Russia’s recovery had to do with rises in oil prices and a whole host of other factors which had little to do with Putin.
To be fair, in some ways Putin and Medvedev have had a hand in improving conditions in Russia, but this creates a particularly embarrassing problems for Team Russia fans, most of whom claim to be against globalization. When we look at all the positive changes in Russia, we can see that they are related to Russia’s integration into the global economy, something which Putin and Medvedev both presided over. Russia makes its money selling oil, gas, and natural resources to other countries. Putin has publicly pledged that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy. Russian oil companies, partially owned by the state, have lucrative joint ventures with American and other foreign oil companies. Russia is investing abroad and more Russians are traveling abroad for business and vacations. Russia is now in the WTO. Of course all of these things have pitfalls and downsides but one thing is clear, Putin is not opposing globalization; his positive contributions actually depend on his embrace of it. People who think that Russia’s resources will enable it to somehow transform into some kind of fortress for the sake of opting out of global capitalism need to start studying economics instead of playing real-time strategy games.
Is Putin a dictator?
Since I’m a firm believer that all states are essentially dictatorships, this is a tough question. A lot of times our views about what constitute a dictator are formed by pop culture. We assume there must be a one party state(as opposed to a state with multiple parties which essentially see eye-to-eye on the really important matters), photographs and posters of the tyrant plastering every vertical surface, and of course, constant repression.
Putin is a dictator in the common parlance only in the sense that he is an individual who obviously commands a great deal of power and connections which he uses to ensure that he is always close to the seat of power in Russia if not on it himself. No doubt much of his prowess in this endeavor stems from being far more worldly and intelligent than the rest of the morons who make up the government, plus his connections with Russia’s most powerful business interests. While he does seem to be perfectly capable of outwitting those who threaten his position, he has also benefited from sheer idiocy of his opposition. He can either use populist appeals to force opposition movements to stand in rank in the name of patriotism, or he can wait for his undisciplined opponents to embarrass themselves. The man is a cold hard realist to the core, and it is my suspicion that he is perfectly willing to give up power at some point when he can be sure that he will not be prosecuted and made into a scapegoat of a future regime, nor will he have to make a rather embarrassing run to Sheremetevo airport with only the bags he can carry.
The problem is that while he is obviously monopolizing power with a small coterie of friends, sensationalism has transformed him into something like a Pinochet or Mussolini. Just look at this video with Charlie Brooker. In it, one of Brooker’s jokes seems to imply that Putin kills people, specifically people who criticize him. But who could blame Brooker when the Guardian publishes a book like Mafia State, allegedly about the “brutal new Russia.” And that line, the “brutal new Russia”, shows us how sensationalist the press can be because while at the time I am writing this there has been a streak of resurgent 90’s-like activity plaguing the Russian capital, Russia has if anything become less brutal since that decade when the Western press turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Yelstin “government.” Say what you want about Putin, but he never ordered tanks and snipers to open fire on unarmed demonstrators as Yeltsin did in October of 1993.
What the “liberal” reader may not be able to comprehend about all this is that portraying Putin as a brutal tyrant not only ignores the structural, systemic problems in Russia, but actually helps Putin’s PR machine. It supports the notion that the West is out to get Putin.
Does Putin oppose the West?
Many of Putin’s fanboys in Europe and the USA are opposed to their own governments for whatever reason. Sometimes their motives are virtuous, other times, not so much. Whatever the case, it stands to reason that if one hates their own government and sees the media portraying another world leader as an opponent of that government, they will identify with that leader. As for Russia itself, Putin’s power relies on portraying himself as a strong leader who is raising Russia from its knees. Few Russians actually believe that, but of them few disagree that patriotic concept itself.
This question is difficult to answer at the moment because as I write this, the world is discussing Obama’s proposed “punishment” against Syria. Strangely, Russia has deviated from its usual strategy of “talking shit but not actually doing anything while benefiting from increased oil prices” to “talking shit but probably not actually going to do anything despite engaging in some theatrics in the Mediterranean.” Whatever happens, the first variant is the typical Putin response. Earlier I mentioned how Putin declared that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy. Much of that “Europe” is in NATO. Russia also depends on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia has been a member of US CENTCOM since its founding in 2001. The truth is that if the United States decided to pack up the whole empire overnight there would be a power vacuum and Russia doesn’t stand a chance of filling it. China would probably take the lead with Russia in some partnership with the EU. As for what’s going on in Syria now, Obama’s hesitation probably stems from contradictory foreign policy goals and repeated warnings from his experts that the fall of the Assad regime will turn Syria into a fertile ground for Al Qaeda and other Salafist terrorists. However, that outcome is far more of a threat to Russia than the US. Aside from the economic hit Russia would take, extremists could one day start a new insurgency in the Caucasus, whereas the best they could hope for in the USA is the occasional terrorist attack in a public place.
While it is difficult to gauge what the final outcome of the Syria mess will be, one thing is for sure- Russia has no concrete examples of resistance to “the West.” It’s just as well since Russia in its present state is by no means anywhere near prepared for such a confrontation and the results would be even more disastrous than the early 90’s were. Neo-Cold Warriors on Team Russia’s side are basically cheering and hoping for the very thing which would bring Russia’s ultimate destruction, and they oppose virtually anything which would change that reality because doing so would mean having to admit that their favorite strongman hasn’t turned Russia into the Soviet Union of Red Alert II.
It is also worth noting that during the Cold War, states which were considered clients of the USA and of the Soviet Union were not always obedient and often engaged in activities which embarrassed their benefactors. This did not mean those regimes were truly independent, much less opposed to their patrons. Gomulka’s rebellion against the USSR didn’t make the Polish People’s Republic an enemy of that nation, while Mobutu’s kleptomania never fully alienated him from the US, France, and Belgium. Having taken this into account, we must remember that Russia is not a client state of that sort, meaning that it can exercise a great deal more independence. This does not, however, mean that it doesn’t occupy a subservient role in the world, underneath the most powerful players such as the US, China, or the European Union. In fact, the OSCE’s nod of approval toward Russia after the Ossetian conflict of 2008 seems to support those who believe that the great powers are more than happy to allow Russia to dominate its immediate sphere of influence in return for resources and regional stability. In the future, Russia may play a role similar to that of the 19th century, i.e. the gendarme of Europe.
Is Putin a homophobe?
In light of the recent anti-gay laws passed in Russia, the media once again resorts to the practice of reducing all events in Russia down to one guy and propagates the idea that these laws were actually Putin’s idea. Obviously Putin bears responsibility for passing these laws but none of these were his brainchild. As I said before, the man is a cold hard realist and any realist doesn’t give a fuck about who people sleep with. What the media is missing in all this is that this is a political ploy, a populist appeal to sabotage and appease large segments of the opposition which appeared late in 2011 and continued its activities throughout 2012. Western critics, as usual, tumbled right into Putin’s trap.
Since the outbreak of protests following the corrupted Duma elections of 2011, the Western media has continually distorted the image of the opposition in Russia. Continually ignored is the most obvious fact, that if we are speaking of numerical, official political opposition, Putin and United Russia’s biggest opposition comes from the KPRF, better known as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Truth be told, the KPRF is “Communist” in name only, but this is beside the point. The idea of thousands of Russians protesting in the streets holding Soviet flags and pictures of Stalin(something that could be observed long before 2011) is not something that Western media outlets, nor governments, want their respective populations to see. People are supposed to remember Russians tearing down statues of Lenin. The other major Russian opposition party is the LDPR or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by the clownish Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Like the KPRF it is also populist and nationalist in its rhetoric and thus rather unsympathetic to Western audiences. So what happened in the end was a ridiculous farce where figures who were in reality rather unpopular in Russia(especially outside of Moscow) were portrayed as the leadership of the opposition movement. This included people like the blogger Navalniy and Boris Nemtsov and groups like “Strategy 31.”
Thus came the myth of the liberal opposition, the “White revolution,” both ideas which played right into Putin’s hands and allowed United Russia to paint the entire opposition movement as a Western-sponsored coup attempt. Elements of the opposition movement which were inconvenient to the narrative were ignored. Among those were the many right-wing extremists, fascists, and open neo-Nazis. I was at the first Bolotnaya demonstration and the demonstration at Academician Sakharov Prospect roughly two weeks later and on both occasions I saw neo-Nazi flags amid the crowd. This was in addition to numerous other symbols used by Russia’s far right. In fact, Navalniy himself has a well-established history of association with such groups, but that fact was inconvenient and thus it is rarely mentioned outside of Russia. Long story short, the liberal opposition was a myth, a myth which served the regime well. Many of the demonstrators, regardless of their political affiliations, held far-right reactionary views.
This is where the anti-gay laws came in. Essentially by approving these laws, Putin is throwing a bone to a large part of his opposition and it seems to be working. Russia draws criticism for the action and suddenly Team Russia types, including those who most likely oppose Putin, are getting into ranks and defending Russia’s “different values.” It’s become a matter of patriotism which the Kremlin wields very effectively. Probably all of this could have been torpedoed if critics in the West had actually taken the time to analyze the political situation, but that’s too much to ask for when you’re busy building the myth of liberal hipsters standing up to the ex-KGB agent with their iPhones.
Once again, Putin is a realist, and if one day he got the idea that LGBT rights would secure his power a bit longer, he’d fly rainbow flags from the Kremlin wall and change the national song to this.
Did Putin kill my dog?
Probably not. I can’t say for sure though. He is an ex-KGB agent.
What about Dmitry Medvedev?
Nobody cares about Medvedev. I don’t think Medvedev cares about Medvedev.
What do Russians think of Putin?
Aside from pro-Kremlin youth groups who pay students to appear at their rallies(to be fair this is also practiced by opposition groups from time to time) and Team Russia fanboys, Putin is not very popular. The best people can say about him is “stability” or “who else is there?” The government has a long history of making promises that are supposed to be accomplished within the next year, five years, or in some cases ten years. Needless to say, they either don’t materialize or end up very differently than planned.
Is Putin Stalin?
This Putin-Stalin comparison makes me want to punch someone. If you’re a person who believes the worst about Communism and Stalin, you would be forced to acknowledge the fact that under Putin you don’t have shootings or a GULAG system. If you are a left-wing individual more inclined to defending Stalin or at least the USSR, you would have to acknowledge that Stalin arguably did far more to improve Russia(and the territory of the USSR) than Putin ever has. I realize that’s a controversial point but Isaac Deutscher was correct when he said, “He had found Russia working with wooden ploughs and leaving it equipped with atomic piles.” At best, Putin is holding a field dressing to Russia’s wound, staunching the bleeding but unable to stop it completely. Those who join his fan club, whether on the left or right, are essentially endorsing this slow death of Russia.
How should people in the West see Putin?
A difficult question seeing as how Putin’s real nature is mysterious even in Russia. Here in Russia he is like a one man rumor mill. When he finally announced his divorce a few months ago, people had been speculating that he had been having an affair for years prior, even claiming that he had fathered the woman’s child. Ordinary Russians will throw out theories about what companies Putin allegedly owns, most of them among the largest in Russia. He clearly has money to spare but the source is unclear. That being said, it’s important not to fall for the hype and PR.
The best thing people in the West can do to understand is not to trust any media source entirely. That means not only the BBC but also outlets such as RT(the network itself isn’t exactly the pro-Putin propaganda network but it employs a number of Team Russia fanboys). Living in Russia and reading the foreign press is often a bizarre experience, and I am not alone in this feeling. You go to an opposition rally and you see hundreds of people waving red flags. Then you look on Western news sites and you’d get the impression that the Russian presidential election was between Vladimir Putin and Gary Kasparov. If it’s really important for you to know, go to Russia, learn the language, and get a broad spectrum of opinion. Don’t just hang out in the center and talk to the faux-liberals at Jean-Jeacques, and don’t go straight to the Kremlin-backed “youth groups” who mask their tiny numbers with slick Youtube videos. Don’t stay in Moscow either. Eventually you’ll start to realize that the problems of Russia are not entirely unique, and that Russia cannot be boiled down to any one person.
Anyway, proceed with your buttmad comments about how I’m a pro-Kremlin Putin apologist hack or a Western liberal funded by the CIA.