Alexander Etkind | Russia’s preemtive counter-revolution4 min read . Updated: 01 Jan 2015, 12:18 AM IST
In many respects, Putin's dictatorship is primitive. It is founded on base emotions rather than Soviet-era, ideological motivations
In 2014, Russia President Vladimir Putin returned his country to dictatorship. From the Kremlin to Crimea, Russian citizens must now deal with the greed, fear, and mendacity of a dictator who, in the course of this year, has eviscerated any final check on his authority.
In many respects, Putin’s dictatorship is primitive. It is founded on base emotions rather than Soviet-era, ideological motivations. Though Putin has tried to stoke a popular desire for empire with his Crimea annexation and intervention in eastern Ukraine, these actions amount to little more than open theft by masked men in the dead of night; they have little chance of begetting lasting glory.
Many of my fellow cultural historians disagree. They insist that Putin’s regime represents a form of continuity with Russia’s cultural traditions. They believe that Russia has inherited a cultural DNA that transcends revolutions, as if some kind of vicious gene was driving the Kremlin’s current imperialist aggression in Ukraine (and, if Putin’s threats are to be believed, Kazakhstan may soon be next). Others believe that this continuity works through national character. They argue that Russians’ specific nature leads them to support Putin, just as they allegedly supported Stalin and the Romanovs.
Such arguments do not withstand scrutiny. Empires come and go, as do their traditions. For every expansionist Czar, or commissar, from Catherine II to Putin, there have been leaders prepared to retreat. Alexander II sold Alaska; Lenin withdrew from Ukraine in exchange for peace with Germany; and Gorbachev pulled back from central Europe in an effort to end the Cold War.
The belief that Russians desire an authoritarian leader is also misplaced. To be sure, even as 2014 ended, Putin’s approval ratings remained high (though they are no more reliable an indicator than Russian budget projections, political pronouncements, or gas deliveries). But, even if the polls are accurate, his popularity is largely irrelevant: dictators do not rule through a social contract, and neither his position nor his legitimacy derives from popular appeal.
That distinction between state and people has long defined Western policy toward Russia. In his 1946 Long Telegram, which marked the start of the Cold War, the US diplomat George F. Kennan understood that the Communist Party line did “not represent the natural outlook of Russian people".
In any case, though portrayed as a powerful leader, Putin cannot be said to be following Russia’s ultimate strongman, Stalin, in any meaningful respect. Under Stalin, enthusiastic self-sacrifice and scientific rationality were promoted as ideals. Industrial development and military victories, though coming at an intolerable human cost, were real. The regime depended on show trials and gulag labour, and used unprecedented violence to consolidate the power of dogmatic, ascetic bureaucrats. Corruption was a crime that was punished.
Today, corruption is the norm, and show trials, though still occurring, do not happen on Stalin’s industrial scale. Putin and his circle are mainly concerned with survival and enrichment. He fears Ukraine’s 2014 uprising as a “revolutionary plague" only because it might erupt in Moscow’s own squares. Putin’s desire to pre-empt such an outcome explains the Kremlin’s brutal response.
Putin’s regime is simply a Russian version of clientelism, with wealth and economic opportunity distributed on the basis of political fealty. The system’s crimes have been evident for years, and it is tragic that no international power has been able to punish it. Westerners who think otherwise and have acquiesced in Russia’s actions in Ukraine do so for no other reason than their own greed, fear, or self-deception.
Indeed, after sucking resources and money from Russia and its citizens, Putin and his obedient oligarchs have been allowed to invest their ill-gotten gains in European and US banks and real estate, paying fat fees that have fuelled profit growth for Western firms. The West’s gain, however, continues to cause enormous discomfort for ordinary Russians. After almost a quarter-century of so-called “liberal" economic policy, everything from imported goods to bank mortgages are still far more expensive than in the West. And recent sanctions have only worsened conditions.
The Ukraine crisis has revealed how the longstanding collaboration between Russia and the West has undermined important principles of the modern global order. Everyone knew about the underinvestment, over-exploitation, and lawlessness that characterizes Putin’s Russia, but no international power was interested in discussing, let alone combating, it. Only when the Russian state decided in 2014 to elevate kleptocracy to a principle of foreign policy did Putin’s system of government become an international concern.
Russia has had more than two decades to reshape itself into a country that would benefit its people, Europe, and the wider world. Instead, it remains stuck in a post-Soviet netherworld, owing to the concerted efforts of an elite that has a strong interest in preventing the emergence of a productive, law-abiding country. That was not inevitable, though it is likely to continue in 2015. ©2015/Project Syndicate
Alexander Etkind, a former reader in Russian Literature and Cultural History at King’s College, Cambridge, is a professor of history at the European University Institute in Florence.