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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A different forecast for Russia

Like all Russian tsars and dictators, Putin has a political reserve in the shape of the grassroots whose cohesion the war with Ukraine has considerably contributed to
23 June, 2015 - 11:58
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

This text was not intended to be printed because it is a summary of the book I am finishing now. It contains many things The Day’s readers know from my other publications. Still I requested editors to publish it. What caused me to do so was a Russian press campaign which produced very similar – as if carbon-copied   – texts that forecast Russia’s near future. The list of the authors’ names shows that it is a very serious company: Andrei Piontkovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Oleg Kashin, Nikolai Zlobin, and other respected people.

At first glance, these texts are very oppositional. They claim that the times of discord in Russia are coming up and that the broad masses of people are discontented with Putin’s regime, but, at the same time, they are addressed to the political elite of Western countries. The latter is being asked to look at Russia with different eyes, to avoid confrontation, and so on.

Taking into account that any Russian discord, any danger of destabilization, not to mention the disintegration of Russia, is a bad dream of not only the Western political elite, but also the electorate, it becomes clear that all these texts are pro-Putin and pro-Kremlin. It is not without reason that they emerged simultaneously with the prolongation of sanctions and the beginning of the impoundment of Russian property, following the lawsuits of Yukos shareholders. Of special activity is Khodorkovsky who keeps repeating the old cliche about the consequences of US arms supplies to Ukraine – the Russians will think they are at war with the US, you see.

In response to this, I offer a different forecast for Russia. I say it again that the text was not intended for his, but I think it is the right time to publish it.

Here we go.

To make a strategic forecast of Russia’s development, one should determine its methodological basis – the overall understanding of its history and the direction of its movement as an integral unit. Otherwise, the criteria that are used for evaluating the societies and countries Russia opposes will be inevitably projected on the Russian situation.

The Russian pattern of development is underdevelopment passed off as a special quality. It is backwardness hyped up as a particularity. This substitution is the fundamental principle of Russian national identity based on, above all, the opposition to the civilized world but formed under the influence of its demonstrational effect as a result of being drawn into global processes. It is an extremely contradictory society.

Its basic contradiction is the borrowing of global economic practices and entry into the world’s economic structures, with the national identity, based on the opposition to the world’s center of civilization, being kept intact or even increased. The degree of economic borrowing and dependence can vary, and it is far from always proportional to the degree of national and political opposition. In the Soviet era, especially in its last decades, the USSR’s economy differed greatly from the global and the current Russian economies. But anti-Americanism and chauvinism were not rooted in society as deeply as now.

The explanation is that Russia is now at a different – compared to the late USSR – stage of its usual cyclic movement in time. The Russian model is so enduring because it is capable of modernizing or even changing radically – as it did in 1917 and in the late 1980s-early 1990s, – while keeping intact its inner core, its inalienable essential features.

Perestroika was this kind of a cyclic “vaccination” – an attempt to modernize totalitarianism, revamp it on a rational basis, and drop some of its most archaic features. Now, 30 years after Gorbachev’s first steps in this direction, we can admit that it was a success.

Let us recall what perestroika was aimed at and what emerged two decades later. All the sides of life have been deideologized – even the government is outside ideology, except for the all-pervading pragmatism and utilitarianism. There are no traces of the omnipotent party apparatus. United Russia has nothing to do with the CPSU – for example, now it serves as a lightning rod, as do the Duma, the MPs, and the regional authorities.

We seem to have a market economy, but there is no free market. The economy has cleared itself of the plan idiocy and is integrating into the world economic system under strict supervision of the government. The same applies to politics. The current ruling elite have learned to remain unchangeable without repressing or destroying the oppositional elite. We seem to have elections, but there is neither elective democracy not the electorate – all we have is the population.

The authorities are independent from the population, there is no civil society, and none of the political or civic forces is a bearer of democratic principles and values. Such is the political implementation of Russian national identity. For this reason, political changes in Russia cannot be associated with the implementation of applied political programs, the changes or updates of the elite, and, moreover, revolutions and revolts. It can only be a question of radical and most deep-seated motivations of political behavior.

There is not the slightest ground for expecting medium-term changes to occur at this level. As before, everything in Russia will be decided in an intra-elite conflict which is already underway and will be further aggravated against the backdrop of the economic problems that arise, to a large extent, from the implementation of the Russian model of imperial expansion.

This expansion substitutes the nation state, social contract, and civil society. The majority of the populace consider the current economic problems (not so acute, incidentally) as payment for preserving their own identity. Like all Russian tsars and dictators, Putin has a political reserve in the shape of the grassroots, the populace, whose cohesion the war with Ukraine has considerably contributed to. Putin is the most popular leader in the entire history of Russia. He is an integral part of Russian identity and fully shares the aspirations it has give rise to – therefore, he needs no ideology or any other nonsense. Nor does he need charisma. His charisma lies in the absence of any. He is the leader of an era of mass culture rather than of theories, ideologies, and big style.

Reliance on the grassroots, imperial populism, and totalitarian egalitarianism are strengthening the position of Putin who keeps so far intact his main achievement – the consolidation of elites. Naturally, the near future is going to see a revision of statuses not only in the ruling elite – changes await the social structure of the entire society. First of all, this will affect the strata that were recently meeting the intellectual and cultural requirements of official consumerism. But consignment to social limbo will touch upon everybody. It has already touched in fact.

It is now time to speak of a new-type big terror. In the assessment of what was going on in the mid-to-late 1930s, the world “terror” only means a method, a technique of restructuring an established society. Unlike the previous repressions, the big terror in the mid-to-late 1930s, after the “congress of victors,” was not a socio-local campaign (against peasants, engineers, and historians) but a vertically organized one aimed against the new governmental and public chain of command rather than against old-world representatives.

Both Russia and the outside world do not attach much importance to the current information about more and more almost daily corruption-related arrests and criminal cases. What stands behind all these events is a struggle for resources. By contrast with Stalin’s big terror, it is so far some intra-elite clashes of a horizontal nature rather than violence monopolized by the No.1 leader. Actions of this kind are impossible without the use of the law-enforcement system and other uniformed services in private interests.

What also reinforces the punitive apparatus is a social factor. In the Stalin era, people used to be reduced to “prison camp dust,” and now they are to be reduced to “social dust.” Prosecutors can suspend the mass-scale lockout of workers, but social decimation is everywhere – in state-run organizations, corporations, the media, the high-tech area, and even the MIC. On the one hand, this leads to a still closer consolidation and cohesion of the lucky ones, but, on the other, this causes the fear of likely social conflicts. Fears will have more serious consequences than the conflicts themselves which are unlikely, local, and without tangible results, as they were in the Soviet era.

However, all this is linked to Russia’s opposition to the world. Yet the second part of the basic contradiction – borrowing economic practices – still remains. Naturally, the yardstick of effectiveness will be again the impact of this borrowing on the reinforcement of the power of the current ruling elite – to be more exact, the part of it that will get the upper hand.

Experts consider three scenarios in the economy: two realistic and one fantastic. The first, realistic, is conservation of a resource-dependent economy and an inevitable stagnation. The second calls for mobilization or even autarchy and an administrative-punitive system of governance. The fantastic scenario is liberalization and institutional reforms.

The political evolution, including one in foreign policy, has no alternative, for an external aggression performs, above all, the function of internal governance. At first glance, many things do and will look as a crisis and a ruin, but this was also the assessment of the abolition of NEP (“New Economic Policy”) and the collectivization, which was disastrous for the economy and vast social communities and resulted in the death of millions, but, at the same time, this helped build a new invulnerable and superstrong political regime.

By Dmitry SHUSHARIN, Moscow-based historian and political journalist, special to The Day