The Beginnings of a Catastrophe
November 30, 2007
A year and a half ago, it was a question of premonitions of a catastrophe. One and a half months ago – prologue to a catastrophe. And now – its beginning. A year and a half ago, applying the word “catastrophe” to the near future of Russia might still have been called an exaggeration. But current events have proven, unfortunately, that this is the right word for it.
One of the key events launching this catastrophe is what is sometimes called the “elections of December 2”. The so-called “election campaign” that is now winding up is reminiscent of two previous campaigns – the one that took place in the USSR before elections to the Supreme Soviet on December 12, 1937, and the one that took place in Germany before the Reichstag elections of March 5, 1933. All three campaigns – the two previous and the one current – have in common the manner in which the authorities conducted themselves: with massive violations of the law, including laws adopted by the very same authorities; theatric shows with elements of psychosis; the prevention of political opponents from participating in the elections; and intimidation, violence and terror – right up to the jailing of political opponents. While the degree of viciousness and scale of the authorities’ illegal actions still falls short of events in the USSR and Germany seventy years ago, there can be no doubt about the direction in which the present regime is evolving.
Considering what has happened in recent months, what will take place on December 2 cannot be called parliamentary elections in the classical sense of the word. These are not an expression of the will of the people. They are not even a referendum on the people’s trust in Vladimir Putin. December 2 is nothing but a special operation.
In this special operation the main participants from the authorities’ side – “YedRo” [TN: abbreviation for the party United Russia, or Yedinaya Rossiya], “zaputintsi” [TN: members of the “For Putin” movement], “nashisti” [TN: members of the Nashi youth movement] – did not act independently. They were all bit players, albeit at a low level, not knowing or poorly understanding what they were being used for, and how they will be used tomorrow.
The degree of unwittingness and lack of understanding about what is going on, demonstrated not only by the propagandists close to the authorities, but also by high-ranking officials in the regime itself, including the leaders of both houses of parliament, both prime ministers – the recently retired and the recently appointed – and the two “successors”, shows that they as well are just bit players.
For the citizens of Russia themselves, it is important to understand the main objectives, inevitable results, and unavoidable consequences of this special operation.
The main objective of the December 2 operation is the legitimization of the regime. Not only and not so much the regime that has been formed up to now, but also the regime that will be formed in the coming months. The process of destroying the institutions of modern governance and society – an independent parliament, independent judiciary, a large part of the free media, autonomous governorships, a professional civil service and even the Presidential Administration – once begun cannot be immediately stopped. Moreover, this process will inevitably be continued.
First in line will be the intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the corruption of which has been especially accelerated of late. Their transformation from being utterly ineffective but previously at least government agencies into criminal structures will continue at a full speed. Powerful government and criminal structures will unite to visit violence upon the citizenry. These structures will differ only in the manner in which they apply their violence – with reference to the law or without. Non-observance of the law, ignoring it and violating it, will turn government intelligence and law enforcement structures into organized criminal gangs.
One consequence of the destruction of the institutions of modern governance and society will be the concentration of power into the hands of a steadily smaller group of people, to the point of just one person – the creation of absolute power; subordination of the principles of inviolability of one’s person, dwelling, property, and the transfer of property, making them all conditional upon constantly-changing and forever multiplying conditions; the deformation of rules at work in both government and society; and the destruction of even informal but well-established and widely recognized procedures.
An inevitable result of this de-institutionalizing of government and society will be a shortening of the planning horizon; the elimination of the individual’s sense of independence and responsibility; widespread suspicion, instability, ungovernability and unpredictability in the following of decisions that have been made, and the refusal to adopt them. Unpredictability in decisions, actions and deeds will apply not only to the mass of government bureaucrats, to say nothing of the wider public, but also to members of the groups in power.
Not only in their behavior and commentaries, but even in their facial expressions, the Russian government ministers, the so-called “heirs”, after the removal of the number-two figure in the hierarchy of power – the Prime Minister – and the naming of a new prime minister, gave testimony to the arrival of a new phase in the process of de-institutionalization: the contraction of the circle of decision makers to the absolute minimum and the final elimination of even informal procedures for making decisions – the transition from institutions of any sort (formal or informal) to their complete absence. It is no longer possible to predict the next move of the authorities, not only for the millions of Russian citizens, not only for the semi-professional political consultants engaged in the sacred business of deciphering the “laws of the heavens”, but even for the narrow group of people who until recently made the decisions themselves. This radical reduction in the number of participants in the political process having even the smallest degree of independence increases incredibly the risks facing Russia.
One example of this de-institutionalization is the destruction before our very eyes of the institution for the transfer of power. The very imperfect but essentially democratic procedures that existed in Russia in the 1990’s have been de facto eliminated, with nothing to replace them – neither party, nor group, nor even of a dynastic character. No procedures at all have come into being, even of the type characteristic of an authoritarian regime.
For example, even in the USSR, which was by no means a democratic country, a certain procedure was worked out in the years following the death of Stalin for the transfer of power, and this procedure was applied without any conflict in 1982, 1983 and 1985. The selection process allowed for both the formation of groups and alliances among members of the Central Committee and Politburo, as well as a genuine process for electing a General Secretary, who held very significant but not absolute power. Members of the Politburo enjoyed considerable autonomy, and held genuine discussions at meetings. And disagreements between members of the Politburo and General Secretary did not lead to repressions.
The elimination of institutions for the transfer of power that has taken place in recent months significantly increases the risk of a violent resolution of the succession issue, the risk of a violent overthrow of the government, and the risk as well of repressions against both real and potential participants in such an overthrow.
The elimination of traditional institutions for organizing government and society increases demand for substitutes, a role that is filled by the threat of terror, the seriousness of which can be established only by real repressions - mass or selective. The evolutionary logic of the de-institutionalizing regime inevitably requires the search for and locating of enemies – of the people, the party, the ruler. The current president’s widening campaign against “enemies”, following the logic of the political process, will inevitably require a transition from irregular applications of violence against individuals “harmful to the regime”, to the introduction of systematic repression.
The list of “enemies” and, therefore, the victims of such a repression, have already been named: the “West”, political and ideological opponents, and parts of the government bureaucracy. Regarding the West, it hardly needs to worry about anything fundamentally new, beyond an aggressive propaganda campaign, diplomatic conflict, and the next flare-ups of energy and cyber wars. In contrast to the “West”, two other groups of “enemies” find themselves directly “under the hand” of the regime, and can soon expect to receive their blows.
Regarding the opposition, the campaign of repression against its representatives is quickly gathering speed, both in the breadth of its sweep and the scale and harshness of measures taken. As for the bureaucracy, it too should soon have its turn. Due to its access to the levers of power, the bureaucracy presents a real threat to the current political regime. The logic of the process demands it be purged. The 1933 elections in Germany led to the “Night of the Long Knives” (Nacht der langen Messer) in 1934, against the leadership of the the Storm Battalion (Sturmabteilung) led by Ernst Röhm; and after the 1937 elections in the USSR came the repression of 1938 against the organizers and executors of the “Great Terror”, led by the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov.
That the regime is already prepared for the systematic application of repressive measures against both the opposition and the bureaucracy can be seen not only in the imprisonment of Garry Kasparaov and hundreds of other participants in political protests, but also in what happened to Deputy Minister of Finance Sergey Storchak and Deputy Chief of the Narcotics Service Aleksandr Bulbov.
But what is important is not what the coming catastrophe holds for members of the ruling regime, nor for the bureaucracy, nor even for members of the political opposition. The main thing is what it holds for the common citizens.
In point of fact, these possible consequences only slightly concern their economic well-being. Historically, repressions have not always been accompanied by immediate economic crises, and sometimes have taken place against a background of marked economic growth. From 2000-2007, during a period when the institutions of modern governance were being dismantled in Russia, Russian GDP grew by 69.5%. During the period when the regimes of Stalin in the USSR and Hitler in Germany were being legitimized, these economies grew by 69.1% and 69.6%, respectively. The rate of economic growth in Germany and the USSR in the 1930’s exceeded the world growth rate by 2.4 times. The rate of growth in Russian GDP in the first decade of the twenty-first century has exceeded the world rate by 2.38 times.
The main thing is what the coming catastrophe holds for the security and life of everyday citizens. Evidence of the price that people and the country will pay for the widening institutional catastrophe can be seen in events so far removed from politics, apparently, as the consequences of natural disasters, for example the storm that hit Kerchenskiy Bay on November 11, 2007. Although the storm hit equally hard on both the Russian and Ukrainian shores, and both the Russian port of Kavkaz and the Ukrainian port of Kerch, the damage to the Russian side was much greater. All the sailors who died during the storm were on ships in the Russian port of Kavkaz, and all five of the ships that suffered collisions and all 8 of the ships that ran aground did not receive permission to leave the danger zone from exactly the Russian port authority. In other instances of natural disaster, differences in the number of those killed (for example, in the floods of 2003 in Europe and the Northern Caucuses: Germany – 1, Czech Republic – 7, Russia – 132) and the scale of damage could be explained by differences in the level of economic development in the affected countries. In the case of the Kerchenskiy storm, however, this explanation does not work – Ukraine currently is poorer than Russia. But what in various situations may be called sloppiness, irresponsibility or human error, represents the work of institutions for the protection of human lives and property. And those institutions in impoverished but democratic Ukraine today work better than in richer but authoritarian Russia. Human lives are sacrificed in Russia nowadays not by nature but by the regime’s destruction of the institutions of modern civilization.
There can be no doubt about the prospects for the new regime that will be legitimized on December 2 – it is archaic and historically doomed. Political regimes based on the vertical organization of society, on rule by force and terror, lose out to political regimes based on horizontal organization, tolerance, and competition in economic and political spheres. The great civilizations of the East, powerful governments based on vertically organized societies – from Egypt to Assyria, from Mesopotamia to Persia – surpassed by far the governments of the West at that time in accumulation of wealth and development in science and culture, but were swept away by history. What remains of them is only the ruins of their capital cities. The more impoverished, but differently – horizontally – organized societies of the West not only survived but achieved an historic victory, but not over the East, but over an ineffective system for organizing society, government and the economy. The post-war rise of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong – and in recent decades India and mainland China – is proceeding in large part on the basis of institutions for horizontal competition imported from the West.
Unlike the final prospects for the current Russian regime – which are clear – three questions remain unanswered:
1) How long will this regime persist;
2) What price will Russia pay for its existence; and
3) How many casualties will the citizens of Russia bear before it is eliminated.
The analysis of the current regime runs up against difficulties associated with its fairly rapid evolution, as well as the absence of obvious historical analogies and the limited usefulness of standard analytic tools. Although many similar characteristics can be found in various authoritarian dictatorships of the past, the current Russian regime also has its own peculiarities. The presence of a strange organization called the “United Russia” party makes neither it a ruling party, nor the regime a Party-based dictatorship, like the Communist USSR or Fascist Germany. The exceptional situation of quasi-governmental corporations, intended for redistribution of national economic resources into the hands of their owners, does not make this a corporate regime, like the governments of Italy, Spain and Portugal during the middle of the last century. The ruling status of representatives of the Order of Hook-Carriers and Hook-Worshipers does not make this a government based on an Order, like the Templar Knights or the Teutonic Knights, or the Order-based government of Prussia.
The search for a political regime resembling the current one in Russia inevitably leads the researcher to the shores of Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. Social organizations specializing in the application of force are not limited only to governments, armies, secret services and private security firms. They also include organized criminal groups. (The point here is not, of course, to insult or humiliate anyone, but to use these terms in a purely analytic way – to describe certain clearly defined models of social behavior.) The difference between the former groups and the latter is only that the latter type use force in ways not limited by the law, even the most incomplete law. In his time, Saint Augustine noted precisely the parentage of such power structures (siloviye strukturi) : “A government unbound by justice is nothing but a band of thieves.”
But certain disappointment awaits the researcher here as well. In the presence of an ever greater quantity and quality of comparisons between the current Russian regime and the most well-known criminal societies – the Italian “Cosa Nostra”, “Camorra”, “Ndrangheta”, the Chinese “Triads”, the Russian “Thieves in the Law” – one must nonetheless acknowledge that substantial differences remain. The Mafia has its own principles, rules, codes of conduct – cruel, monstrous and intolerable though they are to civilized citizens. But these rules exist, and the leadership and members of criminal societies in most cases abide by them. What is happening in today’s Russia poorly resembles the observance of rules and codes of conduct, no matter how loathsome they may be. The current situation in Russia would seem more to resemble an unstable gang of urban rabble, characterized by an instability of temper and unpredictability in behavior – by relations that seem very friendly until the unexpected blow of a dagger.
Regardless of how well the nature of the current regime is understood, the issue remains on the agenda: What in this situation are the citizens of Russia to do?
It is worthwhile here to recall the rules that should be followed when normal people are forced to interact with rabble. One of them is to minimize the risk of meeting, contacting or associating with its representatives. Another is not to participate in the rabble’s affairs. The third amounts to the basic rules for survival in new, to put it mildly unpleasant conditions. In the words of Varlam Shalamov, their essence was best summed up by prisoners in the Gulags more than a half-century ago: “Don’t believe. Don’t fear. Don’t ask for anything.”