For quite some time Masha Gessen was one of our favorite Russia pundits, and we often cited her work on this blog. Then her blog and Moscow Times column went quiet as she took a job editing a Russian paper and dropped off the radar screen, but she came storming back recently with a major piece on Vladimir Putin in the October issue of Vanity Fair after publishing a horrifying biography over the summer that explained the medical issues that caused her to disappear.
Her piece in Vanity Fair, which the magazine has bizarrely failed to make available online (only the unfortunately poor-quality PDF linked to above is available as yet), is called “Dead Soul,” a reference to the Gogol novel about Russian corruption. It is required reading. Gessen says that Putin has “concentrated power to an extent even greater than in the Soviet Union” and the editors summarize the piece as follows:
Chosen as Russia’s next leader by Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle, in 1999 Vladimir Putin appeared to be a blank slate on which his supporters, his country and the world could write their desires. Few saw him for what he really was, or the way he brutally erased his footprints on the climb to power. Fewer still have survived to decode him. As Russian forces bend Georgia to their will, Masha Gessen tells how one small faceless man, backed by the vast secret police machine that formed him, took control of the world’s largest country.
We here on this blog, of course, were among the “few,” and we are still waiting for the world to fully catch up. Even many Russians, however, at last are doing so. Writing on Georgian Daily, for instance, Paul Goble points out that even the Russian press is finally getting the message.
On an accelerated basis, Russia is “recapitulating the path of the USSR but in a ‘soft’ and abbreviated” way, a pattern that suggests the near future could feature “a soft Stalinism,” “neo-Brezhnevism,” and perestroika, but also the third “end” of the Russian state with an ensuing and terrible “time of troubles,” according to a leading Siberian analyst.
Aleksey Mazur, who heads the analytic department of Taiga.info, argues that those who focus on the very near term hope that the current wave of repression will be followed by “the restoration of political freedoms and ‘democracy,’” without recognizing that this repetition will almost certainly prove to be “a farce”.
“Russia is completing its latest historical cycle,” Mazur says, something that could point to the end of the state or of the country or to a new rebirth. Which one of these happens “over the next ten to 15 years” is not something pre-ordained by larger social and political forces but “depends on us,” on the choices that Russians at all levels make.
Mazur then points to what he calls “a small, subjective distinction” between the period ahead and perestroika at the end of Soviet times. “Today,” Mazur says, “it is already obvious that the course of perestroika was defined by the personal qualities of the USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Had someone else been in office at that time and been prepared to pursue “a tough line, the USSR might have been preserved. And if it had [nonetheless] fallen apart, that might have taken place according to an entirely different scenario, one more like the Yugoslav. In any case, history would have gone in a different direction.”
That makes the current situation different. “Whatever illusions there were about the liberalism of Dmitry Medvedev, today it is evident that there will not be a voluntary liberalization of the regime.” That is because the current ruling elite is convinced that “the collapse of the USSR took place because of the weakness of Gorbachev.”
Not long ago, Mazur recalls, Sergey Shoygu was asked about the similarities and differences between United Russia and the CPSU and said pointedly: “We will not give up power so easily.”
We now face a fully realized neo-Soviet state in Russia, limited only by the vagaries of the world market price of crude oil and the West’s inability to see Putin’s Russia for what it is.