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The two presidents—George W. Bush and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin—make a remarkable study, side-by-side, and so do the nations they embody. There is much similarity between them. Andrei Sakharov, back in the seventies, taught that the looming prospect of violent confrontation between the Americans and Soviets would most likely be avoided through a process of steady convergence. Examining the situation now with a bit more distance from the dramatic events of 1992-93, Sakharov’s prognosis has proven very accurate, though I doubt he ever would have imagined the course things have followed since his tragic death in 1989. The Soviet Union disintegrated, but its principal successor state, Russia, is a dark approximation of the United States—it reflects America of the Gilded Age in a way. Income inequality is dramatic, the social net is unraveling, and it has a robust, wannabe-authoritarian leader. Meanwhile, the United States, preaching an aggressive, Wilsonian doctrine of liberal democracy, has turned steadily against basic values and has grown dramatically less liberal. Income inequality is racing back to pre-Depression levels, the power, authority and prestige of the Congress and Courts are radically eroded as an authoritarian president busts out of the constraints of an Enlightenment-era constitution. Indeed, America and Russia are much more alike than they were twenty years ago. Is there not something seriously menacing in this turn?
Both presidents are nearing the end of their terms of office, and historians will be drawing conclusions about them. While Putin will end his term as president, no serious observer expects him to disappear as a powerful, perhaps dominating, force on the political stage. With Bush, however, the public if not the punditry, couldn’t be more eager for him simply to disappear. No matter how you do the tally, no matter how critical you are of Putin and his dark aspirations, his presidency cannot be termed anything other than a success. Putin clearly understood some fundamental rules of statecraft, particularly the advantage of setting realistic, realizable goals and achieving them. On this point, Bush couldn’t be more of a contrast.
America, it seems to me, has a very weak grasp of Putin’s personality and politics. That’s even the case for most foreign policy pundits who write about him. It reflects, perhaps, the diminished engagement of American intelligentsia with Russia, weakened language skills generally, and a world analysis grown flabby in the wake of American unilateralism. And for this world, the New York Review of Books has an essential elixir: Sergei Kovalev’s essay “Why Putin Wins.”
This is the most important study of things Russian to be published in a popular journal in the United States in quite some time. It is a study of Putin, but more importantly, it is a snapshot of the Russian popular spirit at a critical juncture. When Boris Yeltsin left the Kremlin, Russia’s house was in a state of acute disarray. Its industrial assets had been looted by oligarchs; its treasury was near empty; its self-confidence as a nation was sagging. No political party on the horizon offered an effective message of hope and a way forward. Russians were extremely cynical. And the golden opportunity for the West—a moment of possible reconciliation—had been lost. America had played a heavy hand in the Yeltsin years, and rightly or wrongly, America—and the West—were associated with much of the corruption and exploitation that marked the era. Putin stepped into this void and transformed Russia. The oligarchs were reined in, tax revenues were recaptured, the authority of the Kremlin soared.
And now, as oil approaches $100 per barrel, Russia, the world’s leading oil-producer, is sustaining an economic boom. The nation continues to suffer from a lack of self-confidence which is reflected in many ways: for instance, it continues to witness a stagnant or declining population with early mortality rates and those who accumulate wealth in Russia demonstrate an alarming lack of interest in investment in their own country. But for all of this, Russia is on an express track back to the world stage, as a critical and important player. That is Putin’s legacy.
Kovalev undertakes to explain Putin’s success not with the metrics of the policy wonk, but with a mastery of the psyche of Russia in the emerging twenty-first century. Which is precisely the element of understanding that most American analysts miss.
Russian and foreign analysts have several explanations for the extraordinary “Putin phenomenon.” The first is that Putin gave Russian citizens what they had been longing for after the continual catastrophes of the 1990s: a feeling of relative stability and relative security. There is some truth in this view. Salaries are almost always being paid on time. The economy has stopped declining and there are even signs of growth. Pensions and social welfare payments are increasing although they are still far from adequate to provide a decent life. The percentage of citizens living below the poverty line has declined. The armed resistance of Chechen separatists has been almost completely suppressed. There have not been any major terrorist attacks for some time.
But exactly how stable is the current situation? I am certain that the bloody suppression of Chechen separatism has created a slow-burning fuse in the Russian south, and that the bomb at the end of the fuse will eventually explode. Many economists claim that the present level of well-being results from the convergence of several conditions that cannot last long. Others say that our economic stability is really stagnation, that the apparently favorable social and economic situation is based exclusively on the export of oil and gas, and that Russia will eventually be thrust into the ranks of the third world. For the sake of argument, let’s say that my prognosis regarding the Caucasus is wrong, that economists are also wrong to predict a bleak future for Russia, and that the nation has the government to thank for the current sense of security and relative prosperity—although I don’t see what particular actions of Putin’s team have concretely achieved these results.
What is clear is that such achievements still fail to explain Putin’s electoral successes. If in March 2004 they could be used for campaign propaganda, in March 2000 Putin had not been in power long enough to prove himself as a successful leader. All he had to show for himself were five months as prime minister under Yeltsin, three months as acting president, and a renewed war in the Caucasus.
The war was truly popular among voters and undoubtedly had an enormous effect on the elections. The public easily accepted the official view that Chechens had carried out the barbaric bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999, especially since these events were preceded by the incursion into Dagestan by the Chechen leader Shamil Basaev and his band of “international warriors of Islam.” Putin seemed obviously a man of great energy. Breaking a century-long tradition, he had actually been given authority to make political decisions. He instantly won over the man in the street with his vindictive retaliation in Chechnya. Opponents of the renewal of the Chechen war could simply no longer be heard. Was this perhaps the moment when the triumphal birth of the people’s idol took place?
Whatever Putin promised the population in early 2000—stability, prosperity, revenge against terrorists, swift victory over separatists—his rivals promised the same things. Among them were Zyuganov (who also promised social justice), Grigory Yavlinsky, and Zhirinovsky. (Yavlinsky, however, argued bravely against a military resolution of the Chechen problem. He paid for it by losing a large number of votes.) Why did the voters prefer a homely colonel with fishlike eyes?
As Kovalev notes, Putin’s electoral persona was a rather improbable fusion. Every faction of Russian society could see something different in him. He was, after all, Yeltsin’s designated successor. He embraced the talk about “democracy,” and the essential role of the “rule of law.” Indeed, “???????? ???????” became the mantra of the early Putin years. Though in the end that blend turned out to be much less “laws” and much more “dictatorship.” He was also the “??????,” the KGB-connected intelligence professional. He promised a reach back to the golden era of the Russian tsars—and he was a nostalgia candidate for the old USSR. Putin was all things to all people.
But one thing floats through all of this, and that is the effort to portray Putin as the “war president.” The decisive man of action, prepared to take controversial decisions to assert Russia’s position. First, of course, his reinstitution of the Chechen War, with crushing brutality. Second, the daring escapade in Qatar in which Chechen leader Yanbardiev was assassinated by Russian agents. Third, the mysterious apartment bombings, and the fatality-filled storming of the hostage crisis associated with a theatrical performance of “Nord-Ost” in Moscow. Finally the series of mysterious political killings, most prominently the killing of two of his shrillest critics: journalist Anna Politkovskaya (on Putin’s birthday), and British émigré Aleksander Litvinenko. Did these things in any way damage Putin’s stature? On the contrary, they helped build his mystique. Putin was the man of decision. The man of power. If he was abrasive, so much the better. (A friend who recently returned from a private meeting with the man of power tells me he was greeted by Putin’s black female Lab, named “Connie.” He evidently has a nasty sense of humor, too.)
And in all of this there are dark parallels to the Bush presidency. For Bush seeks to bolster his image with the same Caesarist thinking. The notion of pre-emptive wars, the daring, hyped raids, the internment camps, the enthusiastic embrace of torture.
So what does the political landscape hold? Kovalev sees a “Byzantine restoration.” And I think Kovalev calls this just right, though the reference to Byzantium may go lost with American observers who have little sense of this vital aspect of Russia’s cultural heritage.
By 2004 the concepts of “absolute power” and the “special forces” had, in effect, merged with the monarchy’s two-headed eagle, as had the Soviet anthem (enriched with the words “Motherland” and “God”). Putin’s team quickly accomplished their most important task—the capture of television—and once it had been completed, the country was subjected to pervasive, incessant propaganda that was far more skillful, effective, and all-encompassing than anything the Soviets ever conceived. The mass media have relentlessly hammered home images of Putin as a charismatic ruler leading a national renaissance, while portraying Putinism as the guarantor of stability and order. They have drummed the values of the imperial state into the social mind. They have consistently caricatured and trivialized any alternative concepts of Russia’s development, particularly those based on values of freedom and genuine, rather than “managed,” democracy. In short, they have transformed all the diverse hypotheses about Putin’s popularity from partial explanations into a single, dominant, and overwhelming reality.
The ideological ingredients of Putinism existed in the consciousness of a part of the population long before Putin’s rule; his “team” transformed them into usable modern propaganda and aggressively rebroadcast them to the whole country. It appears that this propaganda campaign has been successful—particularly among young people. The members of the political elite are even more profoundly attached than the masses to the idea of the immutable dominance of the powers-that-be, because it is their own position that is in question. But infusing the values of the imperial state into the public mind is only an intermediate goal for the Russian political establishment. The main goal is to entirely eradicate European mechanisms of power transfer in Russia and to consolidate the Byzantine model of succession…
Putin will simply move from the post of president to that of prime minister, and a corresponding redistribution of authority to the prime minister’s office will take place. This means that in 2008, it will not be a “pretender” or even an “heir” who wins the elections, but an obvious figurehead.
What should be done if one cannot accept the Byzantine system of power? Retreat into the catacombs? Wait until enough energy for another revolt has been accumulated? Try to hurry along revolt, thereby posing another “orange threat,” which Putin and his allies have used, since the 2004 Ukrainian elections, to frighten the people and themselves? Attempt to focus on the demand for honest elections? Carry on painstaking educational work, in order to gradually change citizens’ views?
Each person will have to decide in his or her own way. I imagine—with both sorrow and certainty—that the Byzantine system of power has triumphed for the foreseeable future in Russia. It’s too late to remove it from power by a normal democratic process, for democratic mechanisms have been liquidated, transformed into pure imitation. I am afraid that few of us will live to see the reinstatement of freedom and democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that “the mole of history burrows away unnoticed.”
Kovalev offers a chilling and very realistic vision. Still, we are watching a process of continued convergence in the world, though a darker sort of convergence than the dissidents imagined in the seventies and eighties. The challenge will be for America more than for Russia. In America, there is still a hope that the democratic process can work to effect a rollback of creeping authoritarianism and a restoration of the beacon of hope that the land once held up to the world. In Russia, all sight of that beacon is lost.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Chances that a doctor’s diagnosis of Lyme disease is erroneous:
Engineers were said to be at greater risk of becoming terrorists.
A deaf dog belonging to a deaf owner was shot and killed in Alabama, and an Indiana dog’s skin troubles were found to be caused by an allergy to humans. “It’s just not his fault,” said the owner of Lucky Dog Retreat.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”