Category Archives: political theory

The Putin Paradox: Less evil is More

Paul Goble reports:

The regime in Russia is undergoing a transformation, Grani commentator Dmitry Shusharin says, but not, as many expect, toward dissolution or collapse. Rather, it is seeking to “isolate” itself from society, a development that is likely to make the achievement of any positive changes there more rather than less difficult. Indeed, Shusharin suggests, Russia would be far closer to a breakthrough to a better future if the powers that be were more openly oppressive, whereas Moscow’s current approach can be countered most successfully only if the opposition is willing to engage in acts of civil disobedience.

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Hitler & Putin: Isn’t it Romantic?


Streetwise Professor reports:

I’ve written before on how Russia strikes me as a very Romantic country.  Not in the look-into-my-eyes-darling sense of the word, but in the more philosophical sense of the word (note the capitalization).  That thought struck with particular force as I began to read Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler.  Many of the Romantic strains that Viereck identifies in German history and character types are also pronounced in Russia.  Indeed, take virtually any one of the quotes to follow, and you can replace “German” with “Russian” and still strike very close to the bone.

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Russia: One of the dystopian regimes

Writing in the Moscow Times, hero journalist Yulia Latynina calls Russia and Iran the “dystopian regimes.”

The anti-utopian literary genre of the 20th century was led by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

And now, at the start of the 21st century, it turns out that dystopias really exist. They are not global, but exist on tiny, isolated islands of time and space. They are run by leaders whose golden statues slowly rotate on pedestals in their countries’ central squares. They appear on television like lords descending from the heavens, presented as saviors of the motherland and all-powerful defenders against the foreign enemies.

Dystopian regimes are called rogue nations of the 21st century, and they all have similar qualities.

First, none of these countries’ leaders considers himself a despot. They call their governments “true” or “sovereign” democracies — in contrast to “false” or “Western” democracies. The United Nations has reported that even the Myanmar junta claims to be building a “genuine democracy” in Burma. But be careful here: Whenever a ruler adds an adjective before the word democracy, you probably have a dystopian society.

Second, the economies in these dystopias are in an appalling condition. In North Korea, for example, people are dying of hunger, and the gasoline shortages in Iran remind me of the old, Soviet anecdote:

Question: “What would happen if they built communism in the Sahara Desert?”

Answer: “There would immediately be sand shortages.”

Even countries with only a mild form of dystopia will lag behind the economic development of democratic countries because the main economic resources on which they rely are oil and gas, whereas the primary economic resource in the democratic world is freedom.

The only option for the rulers of economically isolated, backward and destitute countries is to dump the blame for all of their internal problems on the machinations of their supposed enemies.

There is one category of nations that does everything it can to strike fear among countries of the free world. Iran is a good example. It is rushing to achieve this level of fear by trying to create a nuclear weapons program. There is a second category of countries that also brings xenophobic and anti-Western rhetoric to a boiling point, but for domestic consumption only. This is how Russia operates.

The first approach espoused by Iran is usually taken by dystopian regimes whose bank accounts are already frozen in Western banks and whose leaders believe that having absolute authority in their own countries is more important than owning a villa in Nice. The second approach, represented by Russia, is chosen by dystopian leaders with significant assets in the West. These leaders view their high government posts as an opportunity to amass great personal wealth. They understand that if push comes to shove, the West could deliver the most powerful blow to the dystopian leaders’ most vulnerable spot by revealing and possibly freezing their foreign bank accounts.

Dystopias do not represent mankind’s future but its past. Modern dystopian leaders are very similar to Nero in the 1st century or Persian King Shapura in the 3rd century. They hand out provinces, high-ranking posts and oil companies with one stroke of a pen. In their capacity as benevolent “national leaders,” they are always struggling against exaggerated — and often invisible — enemies. And they attempt, in vain, to cover up their countries’ 1,000-year economic and technological backwardness in an era of personal computers and satellite telephones.

In the end, all of these Neros and other capricious despots who have ruled the world for so many centuries have never been able to make new discoveries or inventions, such as satellite telephones or computers. This is probably because their enemies got in the way.

Skidelsky on Neo-Soviet Ideology

Writing in the Times of London Robert Skidelsky (pictured), a British lord and columnist for the Russian business daily Vedemosti, sums up the Putin ideology in a perfect compliment to the translation we published yesterday from the “Nashi” manifesto:


The Litvinenko affair gives a human dimension to what we in the West find most disturbing about modern Russia. It leaves the impression of rogue elements of the Russian State murdering enemies with impunity, at home and abroad. Add to this Andrei Lugovoy’s surreal claim that MI6 had a hand in the murder and Russia’s use of its “energy weapon” to bully its neighbours and it is as if the Cold War never ended.

How Russians see the end of the Cold War is actually a good place to start to understand the muscle-flexing of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Two explanations are popular in Moscow. Liberals argue that the Russian people voluntarily renounced their oppressive, incompetent system, but then the West trampled all over them, claiming victors’ rights over large swaths of former Soviet territory. Conservatives, however, acknowledge that the USSR lost the Cold War – due to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “stab in the back” – but want a replay, this time with the windfall from Russia’s oil wealth.

These two explanations for the end of the Cold War have given rise to two influential doctrines – Anatoly Chubais’s “liberal empire” and Vladislav Surkov’s “sovereign democracy” – that form the ideological basis of Russian foreign policy. Chubais, architect of Boris Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential election, is head of the electricity monopoly UES; Surkov is deputy head of Mr Putin’s Presidential Administration. What is striking is the similarity of vision between a leading spokesman of “liberal” Russia and the Kremlin’s chief political manager.

Chubais’s theory of a “liberal empire”, first aired in a speech in 2003, was clearly influenced by the debates in Washington about invading Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1991, Chubais claimed, “the greatest empire of all time ceased to exist”. Russia should now construct a “liberal empire” of its own from the pieces of the old Soviet Union.

While respecting its neighbours’ “inviolability of borders and territorial integrity”, Russia’s “mission” should be to promote its culture and protect Russian populations in its “neighbourhood”; establish a dominant position in their trade and business; and guarantee their “freedom and democracy”. Only through “liberal empire”, Chubais argued, “can Russia occupy its natural place alongside the United States, the European Union and Japan, the place designated for it by history”.

Surkov’s phrase “sovereign democracy” dates from a speech in 2005. By democracy, he does not mean Western democracy with its “artificial checks and balances” but something more like “independence”, particularly independence from America. Surkov explains Russia’s claim to “sovereignty” as follows: “For 500 years [Russia] was a modern state. It made history and was not made by it”. Some states, it turns out, are more “sovereign” than others. “We differ strongly,” Surkov says, “from Slovaks, Baltic nations and even Ukrainians – they had no state system.”

Surkov’s world view points to the same conclusion as Chubais’s. Russia is one of the world’s natural “great powers”. Greatness is defined by sovereignty. Sovereignty is conferred by history, geography, and the will to power. Some countries are destined to be sovereign, others to be subjects.

Several factors have fed into the new Russian ideology of greatness. One, of course, is its refusal to accept that the Cold War ended in a Russian defeat. It may have ended in an ideological defeat, but geopolitics rises above ideology. A second is the perception that the “West does not love us”. Gorbachev had hoped to “join the West” but was repudiated, so Russia must carve out for itself a separate Eurasian destiny. A third is the realisation of Russia’s potential as an “energy superpower” playing off Europe against China. Russia has also tapped into that Western current of thinking which holds that nation states are doomed – the inevitable victims of a takeover by a US-led global empire or by regional empires.

However, the Chubais-Surkov doctrine has severe problems. Russia’s claim to be protector of the rights and interests of all the Russians of the old Soviet Union is incompatible with respect for the inviolability of its neighbours’ borders. Like the implicit threat to dislodge the US from its new positions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it carries the seeds of dangerous conflict. This is particularly so in the light of Putin’s military doctrine that all postSoviet airspace may be subjected to “preventive” attack by Russia.

Nor is Russia a plausible guarantor of “freedom and democracy” in its near abroad. Not only is it neither liberal nor democratic now, but it won’t be able to expunge the memory of centuries of autocratic, then totalitarian, rule over the space it now reclaims. Finally, both “liberal empire” and “sovereign democracy” conflict with Russia’s ostentatious commitment to the UN Charter based on the idea of equal sovereignty.

For all its cosmetic adaptation to reality, Russian thought on how to restore national pride remains obstinately stuck in the grooves of tsarist and Soviet strategic thinking. Russian policy-makers cannot yet contemplate a genuinely different future – or at least find a way of talking about it that does not simply echo the past. Of Russia it can be said, as Dean Acheson said of Britain in 1961: “It has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role.” Its moment of truth still lies ahead.

Russians on Democracy via DAN

The blogger at Darkness at Noon, apparently in the middle of PhD dissertation research, is now conducting a series of polls of Russians about their ideas on democracy, and offers the following preliminary results:

1) Many respondents understand the pluses and minuses of democracy and authoritarianism. They know that under authoritarianism people can’t select their leaders and can’t criticize the regime. But they also believe that under authoritarianism things are more orderly, the state fulfills its functions better, and the economy is more stable. And so while they know that there are bad things about authoritarian government, many people seem to believe that the “positives” still outweigh the negatives.

2) At the same time, many respondents don’t have a consistent set of beliefs about democracy and authoritarianism. Thus, they answer that “having a strong leader who doesn’t have to worry about things like elections or parliament” would be a good thing. But for the very next question they also say that “having a democratic political system” would be a good thing. Thus, for many people these things are not mutually exclusive. This would suggest that either they don’t really understand what democracy means, or that they’re working with a very different definition of democracy than we do.

3) On that note, if you ask them to talk about problems that come along with democracy, they start talking about low pensions, unpaid wages, unemployment, high prices, and crime. Notice that none of these things really have anything to do with democracy per se. They are not components of the classical definition of liberal democracy. But this is what democracy means to Russians because this is what they had in the 1990s when they had supposed “democracy.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Russians don’t want the classic “goods” of democracy – free speech, elections, freedom of assembly, free press, etc. – but it does mean that any political elites trying to carry the mantle of democracy will have a hard time convincing people to follow them. Democracy and democrats have a bad name in Russia.

4) But how much do Russians really want the classic “goods” of democracy? When asked what the most important problems facing Russia today are, nobody – nobody – said anything about loss of freedom of speech, the loss of a free press, the strengthening of the state, the erosion of political competition. Again, it was all about pensions, unemployment, wages, and prices. Nor did people believe that protecting liberal rights are among the most important functions to be fulfilled by the state.

5) Regardless of what the want or don’t want, the respondents with whom we spoke are extremely passive when it comes to politics. While nearly everyone could give examples of policies made by the state in the last 15 years that they were unhappy about, the vast majority of respondents expressed their dissatisfaction by talking about it with friends and family. Nothing more. A few people said they had or might be inclined to sign a petition in the future, but hardly anyone said that they would be likely to attend a demonstration, for example.

What does this mean for Russia’s political development? It seems clear that the state has systematically be reducing the number of independent poles of political power – the media, the duma, political parties, the courts, the governors have all had their wings clipped by the Kremlin. It seems that the only force remaining that might be able to exercise political power in opposition to the state are citizens themselves by taking to the streets in large numbers. But as the many demonstrations in Russia in the last few months have shown, even this method is being severely restricted by the state. But beyond the state’s actions discouraging mass protest action, my interviews demonstrated that most people are simply apathetic to political action and are unlikely to take to the streets anytime soon. So those of you waiting for a new revolution shouldn’t hold your breath….

6) A series of questions were asked whereby respondents had to rate whether some of Russia’s neighboring countries are more democratic or more authoritarian. Not surprisingly, their answers didn’t really reflect the true democraticness of the countries under question, but rather reflected subjective opinions about what they thought of those countries. Thus, Estonia and Ukraine were most often labeled as fairly authoritarian countries, whereas Belarus is downright democratic. After all, “that Lukashenko is a good muzhik!”

7) People were asked to rate the political system in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Not surprisingly, they rated it fairly positively. However, when asked whether such a political system would suit Russia today, most answered that it would not, stating that “that was a different time, and things have changed now.” I found this surprising, as most superficial surveys you read about in the news assume that because people rate the Brezhnev era highly they must want things to be like they were in “the good old days.” Many people did mention problems with the Brezhnev era – empty shelves being the most frequent answer – but, like it or not, now they have a new system with new problems. So they’ll get by.

Echoing Santayana, Solzhenitsyn Says Neo-Soviet Russia Repeats the Mistakes of the Past

Did you ever see that movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”? Remember the part at the end where the British officer suddenly snaps out of his ego-induced haze to realize that he’s been helping the Japanese win World War II? It seems that, at long last, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is experiencing a similar moment of clarity.

The International Herald Tribune reports that Solzhenitsyn has confirmed what LR has been saying for months now, that Russia has placed itself into exactly the same social position it was in in 1907, whilst placing itself in the same political position it was in in 1927. In other words, the worst of all possible worlds. It can’t last forever, maybe not even very long.

Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn warns in the preface to a newly republished article that Russia is still struggling with challenges similar to those of the revolutionary turmoil of 1917 that led to the demise of the czarist empire.

The article — which will appear Tuesday in the influential government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta — analyzes the roots of the February revolution 90 years ago that forced the abdication of the last czar, Nicholas II, and helped pave the way for the Bolsheviks.

“It’s all the more bitter that a quarter of a century later, some of these conclusions are still applicable to the alarming disorder of today,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in a preface to the article first written in the early 1980s.

Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Natalya, said it should serve as a reminder to Russia’s political class about the dangers stemming from the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and the stark contrast in lifestyle and moral attitudes in the glitzy Russian capital compared to the far less prosperous provinces.

“Alexander Isayevich is deeply worried by this gap,” Natalya Solzhenitsyn told a news conference Monday. “It’s necessary to pay attention to that. If the government fails to do that, consequences would be grave.”

In addition to being printed in the widely read, half-million-circulation newspaper, the article — first published in Russian in a magazine in 1993 — will be also republished as a separate pamphlet under the title “Thoughts On The February Revolution” and sent to officials across Russia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s editor Vladislav Fronin said.

“People from the (Ear Eastern) Chukotka region to the Kremlin would be able to read it,” he said.

Natalya Solzhenitsyn said her husband wrote the article for one of the volumes of “The Red Wheel,” the 10-volume saga about the Russian Revolution that he finished in 1990 and considers his most important work. The article has been published repeatedly, but never in such wide circulation, she said.

Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticizing Stalin in a letter he wrote during World War II, when he was serving as a front-line artillery captain, and spent seven years in a labor camp in Kazakhstan and three more years in internal exile.

He drew on his ordeal in the short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” published in 1962 during a backlash against Stalin. Soon after, however, his writing was suppressed. Subsequent works — including the three-volume “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973-78) — were written in secret and only published abroad.

Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and four years later was expelled from the Soviet Union.

Returning to Russia in 1994 to find a country in deep disarray, Solzhenitsyn’s dismal view of 1990s Russia, along with his nationalism and hope for a resurgence of his country, has aligned him with President Vladimir Putin, who has presented his time in office as a period of recovery following economic and social turmoil at home and weakness on the world stage that Russia suffered after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The 88-year-old has appeared infrequently in public in recent years, and he is believed to be ailing. In rare print or broadcast interviews, he has lamented the state of Russian politics and the government, but also has praised Putin despite the president’s KGB background.

His wife said Monday that Solzhenitsyn had a high opinion of the Kremlin’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

“He believes that many right steps have been taken in the foreign policy field, and Russia has regained its weight,” Natalya Solzhenitsyn said.

Overmanged Democracy = Neo-Soviet Union

Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Foundation confirms with scholarly analysis that Russia is a neo-Soviet state. He characterized Russia as an “over-managed democracy” (“OMD”) and then concludes:

Besides having many similarities with the Soviet system of people’s democracy, OMD is not very stable. It is transitional by nature, and its development toward either democracy or nondemocratic management is inevitable. A reason to be optimistic with regard to Russia’s future development besides the appearance of a whole “unbeaten” generation is the very nature of OMD itself. For overmanaged democracy to serve as a means to preserve political power, the current political elites will have to reintroduce elements of democracy and federalism; otherwise, all they will manage to do is lose power

He observes that it is just as fundamentally flawed as the Soviet system:

By trying to increase control, the system may lose control. The first and main paradox of OMD is the nonlinear relationship between the government’s efforts to control the system and the final result. After a certain critical level of control has been exceeded which may have already occurred the system can lose all manageability and simply collapse. This is what happened during the 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine. The current Russian electoral system has no safety valves left that would enable it to let off steam if the pressure grows. Russia’s OMD is a multilayer system in which the urge to control goes beyond any reasonable limit. In addition, every cog of the system seeks to prove its utility to its superior, and thus works for its own benefit rather than for the public good.

He states that Putin’s is a regressive regime: “In the seven years that President Vladimir Putin has been in power, Russia seems to have regressed politically almost to where it was a decade and a half ago. Nearly all democratic institutions have been weakened under Putin’s rule, including parliament, political parties, independent media, and fair elections.” And he concludes that, in fact, Russian society generally is regressive: “In Russia, a strong, semi-military, mobilization state has traditionally dominated over a much weaker and barely consolidated society. The policy of state strengthening that has been undertaken during Putin’s presidency has largely brought back the familiar Russian pattern: the state is ubiquitous and encroaches upon public territory, pushing out the genuine public initiatives that are not controlled by the state. Having “streamlined” media, business, political parties, and other institutions, the state now attempts to expand its control over civil society.”