Under lowering skies, a thin line of mourners stretched silently outside the funeral hall. Barring the entrance, hulking riot police kept them waiting until assorted dignitaries – Anatoly Chubais, Nato envoys, an impotent ombudsman – had paid their respects. Eventually they were let in to view the corpse of the murdered woman, her forehead wrapped in the white ribbon of the Orthodox rite, her body, slight enough anyway, diminished by the flower-encrusted bier. Around the edges of the mortuary chamber, garlands from the media that attacked her while she was alive stood thick alongside wreaths from her children and friends, the satisfied leaf to leaf with the bereaved. Filing past them and out into the cemetery beyond, virtually no one spoke. Some were in tears. People dispersed in the drizzle as quietly as they came.
The authorities had gone to some lengths to divert Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral from the obvious venue of the Vagankovskoe, where Sakharov is buried, to a dreary precinct on the outskirts that few Muscovites can locate on a map. But how necessary was the precaution? The number of mourners who got to the Troekurovskoe was not large, perhaps a thousand or so, and the mood of the occasion was more sadness than anger. A middle-aged woman, bringing groceries home from the supermarket, shot at point-blank range in an elevator, Politkovskaya was killed for her courage in reporting the continuing butchery in Chechnya. An attempt to poison her had narrowly failed two years earlier. She had another article in press on the atrocities of the Kadyrov clan that now runs the country for the Kremlin, as she was eliminated. She lived and died a fighter. But of any powerful protest at her death, it is difficult to speak. She was buried with resignation, not fury or revolt.
In Ukraine, the discovery of the decapitated body of a journalist who had investigated official corruption, Georgi Gongadze, was sufficient outrage to shake the regime, which was brought down soon afterwards. Politkovskaya was a figure of another magnitude. A better historical comparison might be with the murder of Matteotti by Mussolini in 1924. In Russian circumstances, her moral stature as an opponent of arbitrary power was scarcely less than that of the Socialist deputy. But there the resemblance ends. The Matteotti Affair caused an outcry that nearly toppled Mussolini. Politkovskaya was killed with scarcely a ripple in public opinion. Her death, the official media explained, was either an unfathomable mystery, or the work of enemies of the government vainly attempting to discredit it. The president remarked she was a nobody whose death was the only news value in her life.
It is tempting, but would be a mistake, to see in that casual dismissal no more than the ordinary arrogance of power. All governments deny their crimes, and most are understanding of each other’s lies about them. Bush and Blair, with still more blood on their hands – in all probability, that of over half a million Iraqis – observe these precepts as automatically as Putin. But there is a difference that sets Putin apart from his fellow rulers in the G8, indeed from virtually any government in the world. On the evidence of comparative opinion polls, he is the most popular national leader alive today. Since he came to power six years ago, he has enjoyed the continuous support of over 70 per cent of his people, a record no other contemporary politician begins to approach. For comparison, Chirac now has an approval rating of 38 per cent, Bush of 36 per cent, Blair of 30 per cent.
Such eminence may seem perverse, but it is not unintelligible. Putin’s authority derives, in the first place, from the contrast with the ruler who made him. From a Western standpoint, Yeltsin’s regime was by no means a failure. By ramming through a more sweeping privatisation of industry than any carried out in Eastern Europe, and maintaining a façade of competitive elections, it laid the foundations of a Russian capitalism for the new century. However sodden or buffoonish Yeltsin’s personal conduct, these were solid achievements that secured him unstinting support from the United States, where Clinton, stewing in indignities of his own, was the appropriate leader for mentoring him. As Strobe Talbott characteristically put it, ‘Clinton and Yeltsin bonded. Big time.’ In the eyes of most Russians, on the other hand, Yeltsin’s administration set loose a wave of corruption and criminality; stumbled chaotically from one political crisis to another; presided over an unprecedented decline in living standards and collapse of life expectancy; humiliated the country by obeisance to foreign powers; destroyed the currency and ended in bankruptcy. By 1998, according to official statistics, GDP had fallen over a decade by some 45 per cent; the mortality rate had increased by 50 per cent; government revenues had nearly halved; the crime rate had doubled. It is no surprise that as this misrule drew to a close, Yeltsin’s support among the population was in single figures.
Against this background, any new administration would have been hard put not to do better. Putin, however, had the good luck to arrive in power just as oil prices took off. With export earnings from the energy sector suddenly soaring, economic recovery was rapid and continuous. Since 1999, GDP has grown by 6-7 per cent a year. The budget is now in surplus, with a stabilisation fund of some $80 billion set aside for any downturn in oil prices, and the rouble is convertible. Capitalisation of the stock market stands at 80 per cent of GDP. Foreign debt has been paid down. Reserves top $250 billion. In short, the country has been the largest single beneficiary of the world commodities boom of the early 21st century. For ordinary Russians, this has brought a tangible improvement in living standards. Though average real wages remain very low, less than $400 dollars a month, they have doubled under Putin (personal incomes are nearly two times higher because remuneration is often paid in non-wage form, to avoid some taxes). That increase is the most important basis of his support. To relative prosperity, Putin has added stability. Cabinet convulsions, confrontations with the legislature, lapses into presidential stupor, are things of the past. Administration may not be that much more efficient, but order – at least north of the Caucasus – has been restored. Last but not least, the country is no longer ‘under external management’, as the pointed local phrase puts it. The days when the IMF dictated budgets, and the Foreign Ministry acted as little more than an American consulate, are over. Gone are the campaign managers for re-election of the president, jetting in from California. Freed from foreign debt and diplomatic supervision, Russia is an independent state once again.
Prosperity, stability, sovereignty: the national consensus around Putin rests on his satisfaction of these primordial concerns. That there may be less in each than meets the eye matters little, politically speaking, so long as their measure is memories of the abyss under Yeltsin. By that standard the material progress, however relative, is real. But the stratospheric polls reflect something else as well – an image of the ruler. Putin cuts a somewhat colourless, frigid figure in the West. In cultures accustomed to more effusive styles of leadership, the sleek, stoat-shaped head and stone-cold eyes offer little purchase for affective projection. In Russia, however, charisma wears another face. When he came to power, Putin lacked any trace of it. But possession of the presidency has altered him. For Weber, who had the Hebrew prophets in mind, charisma was by definition extra-institutional – it was a kind of magic that could only be personal. He could not foresee postmodern conditions, in which the spectacle is a higher power, capable of dissolving the boundaries between the two.
Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.
In a strange way Putin’s prestige is thus also intellectual. For all his occasional crudities, at least in his mouth the national tongue is no longer obviously humiliated. This is not just a matter of cases and tenses, or pronunciation. Putin has developed into what by today’s undemanding standards is an articulate politician, who can field questions from viewers on television for hours as confidently and lucidly as he lectures journalists in interviews, or addresses partners at summit meetings, where he has excelled at sardonic repartee. The intelligence is limited and cynical, above the level of his Anglo-American counterparts, but without much greater ambition. It has been enough, however, to give Putin half of his brittle lustre in Russia. There, an apparent union of fist and mind has captured the popular imaginary.
The combination of an oil and gas bonanza with a persona of clear-headed power has been enough to demarcate Putin, in public opinion, decisively from what came before and to assure him mastery of the political scene. The actual regime over which he presides, however, although it has involved important changes, shows less of a break with Yeltsin’s time than might appear. The economy that Yeltsin left behind was in the grip of a tiny group of profiteers, who had seized the country’s major assets in a racket – so-called loans for shares – devised by one of its beneficiaries, Vladimir Potanin, and imposed by Chubais, operating as the neo-liberal Rasputin at Yeltsin’s court. The president and his extended ‘Family’ (relatives, aides, hangers-on) naturally took their own share of the loot. It is doubtful whether the upshot had any equivalent in the entire history of capitalism. The leading seven oligarchs to emerge from these years – Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Potanin, Abramovich, Fridman, Khodorkovsky, Aven – ended up controlling a vast slice of national wealth, most of the media and much of the Duma. Putin was picked by the Family to ensure these arrangements did not come under scrutiny afterwards. His first act in office was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution, and he has generally looked after his immediate entourage. (Chubais got Russia’s electricity grid as a parting gift.)
But if he wanted a stronger government than Yeltsin’s, he could not afford to leave the oligarchs in undisturbed possession of their powers. After warning them that they could keep their riches only if they stayed out of politics, he moved to curb them. The three most ambitious magnates – Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky – were broken: two fleeing into exile, the third dispatched to a labour camp. A fourth, Abramovich, though still persona grata in the Kremlin, has opted for residence abroad. Putin has taken back under state control parts of the oil industry, and created out of the country’s gas monopoly a giant conglomerate with a current market capitalisation of $200 billion. The public sector’s share of GDP has risen only modestly, by about 5 per cent. But for the time being, the booty capitalism of the 1990s has come to a halt. In regaining control of some stretches of the commanding heights of the economy, the state has strengthened its leverage. The balance of power has shifted away from extraordinary accumulations of private plunder towards more traditional forms of bureaucratic management.
These changes are a focus of some anxiety in the Western business press, where fears are often expressed of an ominous statism that threatens the liberalisation of the 1990s. In reality, markets are in no danger. The Russian state has been strengthened as an economic agent, but not with any socialising intent, simply as a quarry of political power. In other respects, Putin has taken the same underlying programme as his predecessor several steps further. Land has finally been privatised, a threshold Yeltsin’s regime was unable to cross. Moscow boasts more billionaires than New York, yet a flat income tax of 13 per cent has been introduced, at Yegor Gaidar’s urging. A highly regressive ‘unified social tax’ falls on those who can least afford it. Welfare benefits have been monetised and slashed. Key economic ministries remain in the hands of committed marketeers. Neo-liberalism is safe enough in Russia today. The president has made this clear to all who are interested. On a visit to Germany in October, brushing aside questions about the death of Politkovskaya, he told his hosts: ‘We do not understand the nervousness of the press about Russia investing abroad. Where does this hysteria come from? It’s not the Red Army that wants to come to Germany. It’s just the same capitalists as you.’
The political system put together since Yeltsin’s departure is a similar mixture of novelty and continuity. It is now de rigueur for Western journalists – even the most ardent boosters of business opportunities in the New Russia, or the humblest spaniels of New Labour, anxious not to smudge Blair’s friendship with Putin (two roles that are not always distinct) – to deplore the muzzling of the media, the neutering of parliament and the decline of political freedoms under Putin. These realities, however, all have their origins under Yeltsin, whose illegalities were much starker. No act of Putin’s compares with the bombardment of the parliament by tanks, or the fraudulent referendum that ensued, imposing the autocratic constitution under which Russia continues to be ruled. Yet because Yeltsin was considered a pliable, even if somewhat disreputable utensil of Western policies, the first action was applauded and the second ignored by virtually every foreign correspondent of the time. Nor was there much criticism of the brazen manipulation of press and television, controlled by the oligarchs, to engineer Yeltsin’s re-election. Still less was any attention paid to what was happening within the machinery of state itself. Far from the demise of the USSR reducing the number of Russian functionaries, the bureaucracy had – few post-Communist facts are more arresting – actually doubled in size by the end of Yeltsin’s stewardship, to some 1.3 million. Not only that. At the topmost levels of the regime, the proportion of officials drawn from the security services or armed forces soared above their modest quotas under the late CPSU: composing a mere 5 per cent under Gorbachev, it has been calculated that they occupied no less than 47 per cent of the highest posts under Yeltsin.
Serviceable though much of this was for any ruler, it remained a ramshackle inheritance. Putin has tightened and centralised it into a more coherent structure of power. In possession of voter confidence, he has not needed to shell deputies or forge plebiscites. But to meet any eventuality, the instruments of coercion and intimidation have been strengthened. The budget of the FSB – the post-Communist successor to the KGB – has trebled, and the number of positions in the federal administration held by personnel brigaded from security backgrounds has continued to rise. Over half of Russia’s key power-holders now come from its repressive apparatuses. In jovial spirit, Putin allowed himself to quip to fellow veterans in the Lubyanka: ‘Comrades, our strategic mission is accomplished – we have seized power.’
Still, these developments are mainly accentuations of what was already there. Institutionally, the more striking innovation has been the integration of the economic and political pillars of Putin’s system of command. In the 1990s, people spoke of the assorted crooks who grabbed control of the country’s raw materials as syroviki, and of officials recruited from the military or secret police as siloviki.Under Putin, the two have fused. The new regime is dominated by a web of Kremlin staffers and ministers with ‘security profiles’, who also head the largest state companies quoted on the stock market. The oligarchs had mixed business and politics flamboyantly enough. But these were raids by freebooters from the first into the second domain. Putin has turned the tables on them. Under his system, a more organic symbiosis between the two has been achieved, this time under the dominance of politics. Today, two deputy prime ministers are chairmen, respectively, of Gazprom and Russian Railways; four deputy chiefs of staff in the Kremlin occupy the same positions in the second largest oil company, a nuclear fuel giant, an energy transport enterprise and Aeroflot. The minister of industry is chairman of the oil pipeline monopoly; the finance minister not only of the diamond monopoly, but of the second largest state bank in the country; the telecoms minister of the biggest mobile phone operator. A uniquely Russian form of cumul des mandats blankets the scene.
Corruption is built into any such connubium between profits and power. By general consent, it is now even more widespread than under Yeltsin, but its character has changed. The comparison with China is revealing. In the PRC, corruption is a scourge detested by the population; no other issue arouses the anger of ordinary citizens to such a degree. The central leadership of the CCP is nervously aware of the danger corruption poses to its authority, and on occasion makes a spectacular example of officials who have stolen too much, without being able to tackle the roots of the problem. In Russia, on the other hand, there appears to be little active indignation at the corruption rife at all levels of society. A common attitude is that an official who takes bribes is better than one who inflicts blows: a change to which Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’, after the end of the terror, habituated people. In this climate, Putin – so far, at least, lacking the personal greed that distracted Yeltsin – can coolly use corruption as an instrument of state policy, operating it as both a system of rewards for those who comply with him, and of blackmail for those who might resist.
The scale of the slush funds now available to the Kremlin has made it easy, in turn, to convert television stations and newspapers into mouthpieces of the regime. The fate of NTV and Izvestiya, the one created by Gusinsky, the other controlled by Potanin, is emblematic. Both are now dependencies of Gazprom. ORT, once Berezovsky’s TV channel, is currently run by a factotum from the FSB. With such changes, Putin’s control of the media is becoming more and more comprehensive. What is left over, that ownership does not ensure, self-censorship increasingly neuters. The Gleichschaltung of parliament and political parties is, if anything, even more impressive. The presidential party, United Russia, and its assorted allies, with no more specific programme than unconditional support for Putin, command some 70 per cent of the seats in the Duma, enough to rewrite the constitution if that were required. But a one-party state is not in the offing. On the contrary, mindful of the rules of any self-respecting democracy, the Kremlin’s political technicians are now putting together an opposition party designed to clear the bedraggled remnants of Communism – liberalism has already been expunged – from the political scene, and provide a decorative pendant to the governing party in the next parliament.
In sum, the methodical construction of a personalised authoritarian regime with a strong domestic base is well under way. Part of its appeal has come from its recovery of external sovereignty. But here the gap between image and reality is wider than it is on the domestic front. Putin came to power on the crest of a colonial war. In March 1999, the West launched its attack on Yugoslavia. Planning for the reconquest of Chechnya began that same month, under Yeltsin. In early August, Putin – then head of the FSB – was made prime minister. In the last week of September, invoking hostile incursions into Dagestan, Russia launched an aerial blitz on Chechnya explicitly modelled on Nato’s six-week bombardment of Yugoslavia. Up to a quarter of the population was driven out of the country, before an invasion had even begun. After enormous destruction from the air, the Russian army advanced on Grozny, which was besieged in early December. For nearly two months Chechen resistance held out against a hail of fuel-air explosives and tactical missiles that left the city a more completely burnt-out ruin than Stalingrad had ever been. At the height of the fighting, on New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin handed over his office to Putin. New presidential elections were set for late March. By the end of February, the Russian high command felt able to announce that ‘the counter-terrorism operation is over.’ Putin flew down to celebrate victory. Clinton hailed the ‘liberation of Grozny’. Blair sped to St Petersburg to embrace the liberator. Two weeks later, Putin was elected by a landslide.
Such was the baptism of the present regime, at which holy water was sprinkled by the West. Bush added his unction the following year, after looking into the Russian president’s soul. In return for this goodwill Putin was under some obligation, which persisted. The occupation of the country did not end national resistance: Chechnya became the corner of hell it has remained to this day. But no matter how atrocious the actions of Russian troops and their local collaborators, Western chancelleries have tactfully looked away. After 9/11, Chechnya was declared another front in the war on terror, and in the common cause Putin opened Russian airspace for B52s to bomb Afghanistan, accepted American bases in Central Asia, and primed the Northern Alliance for Kabul. So eager was Moscow to please Washington that in the emotion of the moment, it even abandoned its listening post in Cuba, of scant relevance to Enduring Freedom in West Asia. But it soon became clear there would be little reward for such gestures. In December 2001, the Bush administration scrapped the ABM Treaty. Russian friends were sidelined in the puppet government installed in Afghanistan. Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions were not repealed.
In this climate, it was asking too much for Russia to underwrite the war on Iraq. Still, the US was not to be antagonised. Left to his own devices, Putin would have preferred to say the bare minimum about it. But once France and Germany came out against the impending invasion, it was not easy for him to sidle quietly off-stage. On a visit to Paris, Chirac cornered him into a joint communiqué opposing the war – though the French alone threatened a veto in the Security Council. Once back home, Putin took care to phone Bush with expressions of sympathy for his difficult decision, and made no fuss about the occupation. Yet by the end of his first term in office, the terms of Russia’s relationship with the West had changed. A fortnight after Putin was re-elected in mid-March 2004, Nato expanded to Russia’s doorstep, with the accession of the Baltic states. But even if Washington had given Moscow little or nothing, Russia was no longer a supplicant. Oil prices, little more than $18 a barrel when Putin came to power, were now over $40, and rising rapidly towards their current level at $60 plus – netting Russia a windfall of $37 billion in extra revenues in 2005 alone. More autonomy was now affordable. The upshot so far has remained quite limited: clumsy attempts to check further Western entrenchment along Russia’s southern marches, by browbeating Ukraine and Georgia; refusal to derogate control of pipelines to Europe; revision of offshore concessions in Sakhalin. But Russia’s shadow as an energy giant is lengthening. It is now the world’s largest producer of gas and, after Saudi Arabia, the second largest exporter of oil. As Europe becomes more dependent on its energy, the country’s leverage is bound to grow. No diplomatic revolution is in prospect. But Russia has ceased to be a ward of the West.
How has the change been received there? Reactions to Putin’s regime vary, but they form a certain pattern, falling within a given range. At one end of the spectrum, there is virtually unconditional endorsement of the Russia that is now emerging. The leading exponent of this view, the economist Andrei Shleifer, helped – not coincidentally – to lay the foundations of the new order, working in Moscow as one of the drafters of Yeltsin’s privatisations, and beneficiaries of the proceeds. Project director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, financed by the US government to promote ‘economic reform in support of open markets’ in the former USSR, he was prosecuted by the Justice Department on his return to the US for criminal conduct – cashing in on his insider position for investment purposes. Harvard had to pay $26.5 million, and Shleifer and his wife $3.5 million to settle the charges against him. This was the scandal that led to the downfall of his patron Larry Summers, who as Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury set up the Harvard project, and was then implicated in the pay-out, as president of the university. Shleifer’s central contention, set out in an article written with Daniel Treisman in Foreign Affairs in 2004, is that Russia has become a ‘normal middle-income country’: that is, a society with much the same growing prosperity, degrees of political and economic freedom, levels of corruption and inequality, restrictions on the media and controls on the judiciary, consumer choice and contested elections, as can be found in Mexico or Turkey or the Philippines, or anywhere else with a statistical per capita income of some $8000 a year.
Shleifer concedes that, like most such places, which fall ‘somewhere between textbook democracy and a full-fledged authoritarianism’, Russia may not be a particularly secure or just society. But – and this is what matters – it is par for the course within its global bracket, which given the debris left by Communism is a remarkable achievement. For many Russians, to be congratulated on rising to the company of Turks or Mexicans might leave mixed feelings. But by lowering the standard of relevant comparison, an unequivocally affirmative conclusion can be reached. Russia is a perfectly normal country for its level of development. It is exceptional only in the historical handicaps it has had to overcome to get there, and so unusually admirable.
Few verdicts are quite as upbeat as this. More common is the approach to be found in writers for the Financial Times – another investor in the new Russia, with a joint venture in the media – which has devoted a great deal of attention to the country, consistently talking up its prospects, while expressing dutiful regrets at the shadows or side effects of progress. Inside Putin’s Russia by Andrew Jack, the paper’s Moscow correspondent, illustrates the genre. Decent space is accorded the failings of the regime, and proper anxiety voiced about the future of liberties under it, without dwelling unnecessarily on these – ‘criticising without animosity and making the right allowances for peculiarities of history and culture’, as the FT put it. Chechnya, inevitably, figures prominently among the allowances. Jack explains that it is wrong to blame Putin, himself a ‘prisoner of the Caucasus’, excessively for a situation ‘where Chechnya and Russia have been at war of one sort or another ever since the two cultures first collided three centuries ago’: euphemisms to rank in some universal treasury of colonial apologetics. The results of the conflict may be unfortunate, but it is a sideshow. What matters is the balance sheet of Putin’s ‘liberal authoritarianism’. Here, the touchstone is thoroughly reassuring. In building a society ‘infinitely better for its citizens and foreign partners than the USSR’, Putin has achieved the essential: he has ‘cemented the transition from Communism to capitalism in a way that neither of his predecessors was able to achieve’.
Of course, since property rights remain insecure and justice is arbitrary, there continue to be grounds for concern. Delicately, Jack ventures the thought that, despite his achievements, ‘Putin’s commitment to democracy and market reform is questionable.’ A robuster brand of optimism was expressed by the late Martin Malia. Author of The Soviet Tragedy – a passionate requisitory of Bolshevism from the liberal right, ideologically parallel to François Furet’s Past of an Illusion (the two were close friends), but intellectually everything it is not, a work of brilliant historical imagination – Malia, after championing Yeltsin, did not balk at his successor. There was no chance, he explained, that Putin could revert to a traditional authoritarianism in today’s Russia, since the path to modernisation no longer lay through military-bureaucratic power of a Petrine, let alone Stalinist stamp. It required instead high levels of education and foreign investment, if Russia was to compete in the relevant contemporary arena, not battlefields but globalised markets. There was little cause to be exercised by Putin’s style of political manipulation, which was much like that of Bismarck or Giolitti in their time. Fears of renewed repression were misplaced. The international community no longer tolerated gross violation of human rights, as Bosnia and Kosovo had shown. The conflict in Chechnya was an exception, for there the ‘national honour’ rather than Russia’s ‘territorial integrity’ was at stake. But now that the deed was done, there would be no need to repeat it. ‘As the Chechnya war recedes into the past, the pressure on Russia to observe the new higher norms of international and civic morality will prevent Putin from doing anything extreme.’
Malia offered this absolution in April 2000. Seven years of torture and killing later, the norms – after Grozny, Baghdad – have staled, and the past has not passed. It would be wrong to say that no authorised opinion in the West did better than this. Among journalists, the Washington Post correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have produced a hard-hitting survey of the new Russia, Kremlin Rising, that puts the palliators of the Financial Times to shame.Among historians, Richard Pipes, at one with Malia in hostility to Communism, but in temperament and outlook the all but complete opposite, has struck a characteristically dissonant note. Whereas Malia believed it was essentially the First World War that blew Russia off course from a normal Western development, which it could now rejoin, Pipes has always held that the roots of Soviet tyranny lay in age-old autocratic traditions of Russian political culture, a view he has recently reiterated in an elegant monograph, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics.
In this vision, Putin’s regime occupies a natural place. Russians, the argument goes, lacking social or national cohesion, an understanding of property or wish for responsibility, cynical about democracy, wary of one another and fearful of outsiders, continue to value order over freedom. For them anarchy is the worst evil, authoritarian rule the condition of a peaceable life. Putin is popular, Pipes has explained in Foreign Affairs, ‘precisely because he has reinstated Russia’s traditional model of government: an autocratic state in which citizens are relieved of their responsibilities for politics and in which imaginary foreign enemies are invoked to forge an artificial unity’. Such bleak thoughts, at the other end of the spectrum from Shleifer’s good cheer, are less well received in Western chancelleries. There, constructive relations with Moscow, intact throughout the wars in Chechnya, are proof against minor embarrassments like the assassination of a critic or a defector. A billionaire property developer is worth a UN tribunal; who cares about a stray journalist or émigré? Noting with relief that in the Litvinenko investigation, witnesses are inaccessible and extradition unthinkable, the Economist has confided to its readers that ‘such frustrations may not be all bad,’ since ‘British diplomats’ biggest worry is not that Scotland Yard will be flummoxed, but that it might succeed.’
Too much has been invested in the triumph over Communism for any deeper doubts about the destiny of Russia. Either blemishes are normal and superable at this stage of development. Or they are the regrettable but unavoidable costs of capitalist progress. Or they are indurated vices of the longue durée. That the West itself might be implicated in whatever is amiss can be excluded. The US ambassador to Moscow in the late 1980s, Jack Matlock, has explained why: ‘Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, in effect, co-operated on a scenario, a plan of reforming the economy, which was defined initially by the United States. The plan was devised by the United States, but with the idea that it should not be contrary to the national interests of a peaceful Soviet Union.’ Gorbachev ‘adopted the US agenda, which had been defined in Washington, without attribution, of course, as his own plan’. Adult supervision – the term once employed by another US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad of Kabul and Baghdad, to describe his country’s relations with the world at large – was even closer under Yeltsin. By these lights, if anything goes wrong, the progenitors are certainly not to blame. See Iraq today.
At Politkovskaya’s funeral, the three principal forces behind Yeltsin’s regime were all on hand. Two of them, hypocrisies obliging: the West, in the persons of the American, British and German ambassadors; and the oligarchs par personne interposée, in the figure of Chubais, to most Russians more odious, as their procurer, than the oligarchs themselves. The third, in authentic grief, waiting outside: the tattered conscience of the liberal intelligentsia. In 1991, of all domestic groups it was mainly this stratum that helped Yeltsin to power, confident that in doing so it was at last bringing political liberty to Russia. Clustered around the presidency in the early 1990s, when it occupied many policy-making positions, it supplied the crucial democratic legitimation of Yeltsin’s rule to the end. Not since 1917 had intellectuals played such a central role in the government of the country.
Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.
With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level. The number of scientists fell by nearly two-thirds. Russia currently spends just 3.7 per cent of GDP on education – less than Paraguay. University salaries became derisory. Just five years ago, university professors got $100 a month, forcing them to moonlight to make ends meet. Schoolteachers fared still worse: even today, average wages in education are only two-thirds of the national rate. According to the Ministry of Education itself, only 10 to 20 per cent of Russian institutions of higher learning have preserved Soviet standards of quality. The state now provides less than a third of their funding. Bribes to pass examinations are commonplace. In the press and publishing worlds, which had seen an explosion of growth in the years of perestroika, circulation and sales shrank remorselessly after 1991, as paper costs soared and readers lost interest in public affairs. Argumenty i Fakty, under Gorbachev the country’s largest mass-circulation weekly, sold 32 million copies in 1989. It is now down to around three million.
For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America. Among the educated, so despised has the medium become that Russia must be the only country in the world today where one can be regularly told, with a look of contempt at the question, as if it went without saying, that the speaker has no television set in the house.
All this was demoralising enough for an intelligentsia that, whatever its internal disputes, had always taken its role as Kulturträger for granted. But with the starving of the universities, the decline of the press and the infantilisation of television, came a further alteration. For the first time in its history, money became the general arbiter of intellectual worth. To be needy was now to be a failure, evidence of an inability to adapt creatively to the demands of competition. Pushed by economic hardship, pulled by temptations of success, many who were formed as scholars or artists went into business ventures of one kind or another, often of dubious legality. Some of the oligarchs started out like this. The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.
The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory. The collapse of the centralised book and periodical distribution system that existed in Soviet times has created difficulties for independent publishers, leaving the field outside Moscow and St Petersburg to four or five big commercial houses which own their own outlets in the provinces, publishing mostly trash while angling for textbook contracts from the government. The most significant literary enterprise is Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, started in 1992 and now Russia’s leading literary journal, whose small book publishing arm produces about 75 titles a year, concentrated in the humanities. Founded and managed by Irina Prokhorova, sister of the magnate who is Potanin’s partner in Norilsk Nickel, it also runs a cultural-political journal, Neprikosnovenny Zapas (‘Emergency Supplies’), that offers a forum for intellectual debate, and has just launched – a sign of the times – a lavish journal of fashion theory. The most coherent attempt to create something like the equivalent of the Silver Age milieu at the turn of the last century, the NLO project can be regarded as a modest oasis of reflection in an increasingly philistine scene. But by the same token it remains an enclave, liberal in temperament, but detached from politics proper. To its left, a scattering of tiny, no doubt mostly transient publishing houses has sprung up, and twigs of a radical counter-culture can be seen. In the very centre of New Russian ostentation in Moscow, hidden upstairs in a side street just behind the gross parade of luxury stores on the Tverskaya, the shabby Phalanster bookshop lives up to its Fourierist overtones: posters of Chávez, translations of Che, biographies of Bakunin, at last – just out – the Russian edition of Deutscher’s masterpiece, his Trotsky trilogy, all this amid every other kind of serious literature.
Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.
More than 15 million copies of the Fandorin series have been sold since 1998, and box-office hits have duly followed. The Councillor of State, in which Fandorin rescues the throne, stars Russia’s favourite actor/film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent monarchist who plays Alexander III in his own patriotic blockbuster, The Barber of Siberia. Mikhalkov is a middlebrow figure, but higher up the scale, Alexander Sokurov, the country’s leading art-film director, reproduces much the same sensibility in his film Russian Ark, in which a prancing, gibbering Marquis de Custine leads a motley company of historical figures, in a 360° continuous camera movement round the Hermitage, that concludes with a final maudlin tableau of the Romanov court on the tragic eve of its fall, worthy of the Sissi series. (In The Sun, yet more striking camerawork, and even sicklier schmaltz, give us the quiet dignity and humanity of Hirohito, as he converses with an understanding MacArthur.)
This dominant vein of Russian poshlost today covers the gamut from pulp to middle-market to aestheticising forms, but it is the first of these that is most revealing of mutations in the culture at large. For, characteristically, a phenomenon like the Fandorin series is not the product of a Russian Grisham or King. Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of a trained philologist and translator of classical Japanese, Grigory Chkartashvili, inspired – he avows – by Griboedov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky; his hero combines traits of Chatsky, Pechorin, Andrei Bolkonski and Prince Myshkin, with a touch of James Bond for good measure. Coquetting in the manner of a latter-day Propp, he has set out to illustrate the 16 possible sub-genres of crime fiction, and 16 character types to be found in it. Hugely successful pulp, marketed as serious fiction and produced by writers from an elite background, would be an anomaly in the West, if we except a single bestseller, never repeated, from Umberto Eco, though there is a close parallel in the astronomic sales and standing of China’s leading practitioner of martial arts fiction, Jin Yong, holder of various honorary positions at universities in the PRC. In Russia, it is a pattern: high-end intellectuals hitting the jackpot in low-end literature – Akunin is not alone – are one of the kinks of the encounter between the intelligentsia and the market.
The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.
Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past.
Scholarship is another story. There, the tensions in public feeling often seem to have had the effect of sealing off the Soviet experience as a radioactive area for serious reflection or research. In the universities, scholars prefer to concentrate on epochs prior to the Revolution. The situation of Russia’s leading authority on the Stalinist period, Oleg Khlevniuk, is expressive. A young party historian reduced to penury with the collapse of the USSR, he was rescued almost accidentally from having to try his luck in business by a research contract from the Birmingham Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Fifteen years later, he still depends essentially on Western grants. The History of the Gulag was published by Yale, and has been translated into several other Western languages. Incredibly, there is no Russian edition of it.
From the opposite background, Nikita Petrov was a youthful dissident and early organiser of Memorial, the glasnost-era civic organisation. Later, picked as a radical democrat for the commission set up by Yeltsin to supply evidence for the outlawing of the CPSU as a criminal organisation, he was given access to secret police archives, of which he made good scholarly use. His latest book is a biography of Khrushchev’s KGB chief, Ivan Serov. Today, Memorial is a shadow of its former self: no longer a political movement, but a residual institution funded from the West, amid general indifference to its work among the Russian population. As for research, since the mid-1990s sensitive archives have been essentially closed – only about twenty pages a day are available from Stalin’s personal files, for the thirty years of his power, a fraction of what any modern ruler generates – and mid-level bureaucrats obstruct any inquiries likely to affront the new nationalism. But in fact, Petrov remarks, there is now little interest in critical study of the Soviet past – revelations of its crimes no longer have any impact. His major work on Yezhov, written with the Dutch scholar Marc Jansen – an astonishing portrait of the man and his time – has never found a publisher in Russia. Can translation costs be the only reason? In his view, the popular mood is now one of incurious nostalgia for Stalinism. In 1991 Petrov could not have imagined such a political reversal would be possible.
Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?
Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.
Why, people in these circles often complain, do the Western media portray the 1990s as a time of chaos, crime and corruption – negative stereotypes of every kind – when in fact it was the freest and best period in the history of the country, yet treat Russia today as a democracy, when ‘we live under fascism’? True, certain intellectuals have also taken to denigrating the 1990s, but that is out of resentment at having lost the privileged living they enjoyed under the Soviet system, when they got comfortable salaries and flats and had to do nothing, whereas now they have to find some genuine work in the market. What then of the personal and institutional continuities between the Yeltsin and Putin regimes? Oh, those. Our mistake was to have been naive about the kind of human society the Soviet system had created, which quickly reasserted itself and produced Putin – who, in any case, ‘is not the worst’ it could have thrown up. In other words, whatever has gone wrong in Russia, it was not Yeltsin’s fault, or their own.
It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.
Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.
By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor. Who might that be? Here, they show some nervousness. For even if Putin does not decide on a third term, he will still be very much at large – only 55, and having amassed huge power, informal as well as formal, in his hands. How would a hand-picked successor cope with him? To this, they have no real answer, beyond joking that Russians don’t bother talking of a third term, but rather of a fourth or a fifth. Their concern focuses on the successor himself. In favour of strong government but not a dictatorship, patriots rather than nationalists, they are fearful of what the future might bring, should a tougher rather than milder heir be chosen, or another major outrage like the seizure of the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan allow the ‘special services’ to impose an emergency regime in Russia.
Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.
Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.
When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.
But the regime in Russia will face a serious problem in 2008, and considerable tension is already being generated. Will Putin step down and hand over the presidency to a successor, or will he change the constitution and stay on? Either course is full of risks. He could easily change the constitution to let him stay in the Kremlin indefinitely, as Nazarbaev has done in Kazakhstan – the parliament will do what he wants, and the West would not complain too much. But this would install something closer to a traditional dictatorship than to a managed democracy, requiring an ideology of some kind, which Putin entirely lacks. So although he is now studying the interwar writings of the theorist Ivan Ilin, then a semi-Fascist émigré in Germany, the best guess is that he will not want to perpetuate himself in power, since this would require too great an ideological upheaval.
Might not nationalism provide such a basis, if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.
On the other hand, if Putin doesn’t change the constitution, and steps down from the presidency in 2008, there will also be a big problem for the system, since for the first time in Russian history there would then be two centres of power in the country – the new and the old president. This is a formula for political instability, as the bureaucracy would waver between two masters, not knowing which one to obey. Putin may think he will select a pliable successor, but historically this has never worked: such figures always want to exercise full power themselves. Stalin was picked as the least outstanding figure by the Party after the death of Lenin, for fear of the stronger personality of Trotsky, and he became an all-powerful despot. Khrushchev was selected as a compromise first secretary after Stalin, rather than the more powerful Beria or Malenkov – and promptly ousted them and seized power for himself. So it was too with the mediocre personality of Brezhnev, chosen as least dangerous by his colleagues. The pattern would be likely to recur after 2008.
Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.
If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.
This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.
All of these debates revolve around the nature of the state. Society is less discussed. In the West, the historians of the USSR who challenged the Cold War paradigms of Pipes and Malia – Sheila Fitzpatrick has described their rebellion in these pages – famously focused on the activities and textures of daily life in the Soviet Union, as popular realities often at variance with official myths, though not necessarily undermining them: the outcome from below, rather than the intention from above. Post-Communism offers a vast field for research of this kind, looking at the ways in which ordinary people are surviving in the new institutional wilderness. Two Russian sociologists, both living abroad, have given us striking ethnographic descriptions of some of them. In How Russia Really Works, Alena Ledeneva, who teaches in London, takes us through the dense thicket of ‘informal’ practices – some entirely new, like kompromat, others a mutation of traditional forms, like krugovaya poruka – that have sprung up in politics, professions, business and the media, all of them breaking or circumventing official rules.
For Ledeneva, they are essentially inventive kinds of illegality, developed in response to the increasing role of formal law in a society where legality itself remains perpetually discretionary and manipulated. As such, they at once support and subvert the advance of a more developed rule of law in Russia. Critical though her account of this paradox is, it comes with a wry affection and upbeat conclusion: all these ingenious ways of fixing or bending the rules contribute in their own fashion to an ongoing, positive process of modernisation. The underlying message is: the Russians are coping. Here it is Western modernity rather than democracy that is taken for granted, as the unspoken telos. A darker verdict can be found in Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics, a blistering study of the ‘political technology’ of blackmail and bribery, intimidation and fraud, in the electoral scene.
Ledeneva’s study explores the world of those who are doing well out of Russian capitalism. At the very end of her book, she lets drop that informal practices which were ‘often beneficial to ordinary people in allowing them to satisfy their personal needs and to organise their own lives’ in times past – ‘before the reforms’, as she puts it – have now become a system of venality that ‘benefits the official-business classes and harms the majority of the population’. The admission is not allowed to ruffle her sanguine conclusions, or uncritical notions of reform. Georgi Derluguian, working in the United States, is more trenchant. Few sociologists alive today, in any language, have the same ability to move from vivid phenomenological analysis of the smallest transactions of everyday existence to systematic theoretical explanation of the grandest mutations of macro-history.
‘The collapse of the USSR,’ Derluguian argues, ‘marks more than the failure of the Bolshevik experiment. It signalled the end of a thousand years of Russian history during which the state had remained the central engine of social development.’ Three times – under Ivan IV, under Peter I and Catherine, and under Stalin – a military-bureaucratic empire was constructed on the vast, vulnerable plains, to emulate foreign advances and resist external invasions, powering its own expansionism. Each time, it was initially successful, and ultimately shattered, as superior force from abroad – Swedish in the Baltic wars, German in the Great War, American in the Cold War – overwhelmed it. But the last of these defeats has buried this form, since it was inflicted not on the battlefield, but in the marketplace. The USSR fell because the traditional ‘Russian state-building assets’, in Derluguian’s phrase, were abruptly ‘devalued’ by transformation of the world economy. ‘Capitalism in the globalisation mode is antithetical to the mercantilist bureaucratic empires that specialised in maximising military might and geopolitical throw-weight – the very pursuits in which Russian and Soviet rulers were enmeshed for centuries.’
In the ensuing disintegration – an implosion under pressure of the new environment – middle-levels of the nomenklatura seized what booty they could, morphing into private asset-strippers or brokers, or reinstalling themselves at different levels, with different titles, in the reconfigured post-Communist bureaucracy. Derluguian has much to say, both picturesque and painful, about this process as it worked itself out in the centre and on the periphery, where he comes from (with an intimate knowledge of the Caucasus). But he never forgets the losers below, ‘the silent majority of Russians’, who are ‘mostly atomised, middle-aged individuals, beaten-down, unheroic philistines trying to make ends meet as decently as they can’, after twenty years of betrayed expectations.
In such conditions, the distance between the frayed, precarious fabric of private lives – of a people now ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’ – and the global canvas on which the destiny of the state is written, seems enormous. Yet there is one traumatic knot that ties them together. In just five years, from 1990 to 1994, the mortality rate among Russian men soared – in peacetime – by 32 per cent, and their average life-expectancy plummeted to under 58 years, below that of Pakistan. By 2003, the population had fallen by more than five million in a decade, and is currently losing 750,000 lives a year. When Yeltsin took power, the total population of Russia was just under 150 million. By 2050, according to official projections, it will be just over 100 million. So many were not undone by Stalin himself.
Official demographers hasten to point out that high mortality rates were already a feature of the Brezhnev period, while low fertility rates are after all a sign of social advance, in syntony with Western Europe. The combination of a mortmain from the past and an upgrade from the future has been unfortunate, but why blame capitalism? Against these apologetics, Eric Hobsbawm’s judgment that the fall of the USSR led to a ‘human catastrophe’ stands. The starkness of the break in the early 1990s is not to be gainsaid. In the new Russia, as Aids, TB and sky-rocketed rates of suicide are added to the list of traditional killers – alcohol, nicotine and the like – public healthcare has wasted away, on a share of the budget that is no more than 5 per cent: half that of Lebanon. A sense of the sheer desolation of the demographic scene is given by the plight of women – more protected from the catastrophe than men – in contemporary Russia. Virtually half of them are single. In the latest survey, out of every 1000 Russian women, 175 have never been married, 180 are widows and 110 are divorcees, living on their own. Such is the solitude of those who, relatively speaking, are the survivors. There are now 15 per cent more women alive in this society than men.
In power-political terms, a relentless attrition of Russia’s human stock has obvious consequences for its role in the world, the subject of urgent addresses to the nation by Putin. What will remain of the greatness of the past? In the 1970s, foreign diplomats were fond of describing the USSR as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’. From one angle, Russia today looks more like Saudi Arabia with rockets, although against the waxing of its oil revenues must be set the ageing of its missiles. That the country, even if it has now regained a certain independence, has so come down in the world haunts not only its governing class, but many of its writers. The possible spaces of empire – past or future, native or alien – have become one of the leitmotifs not only of its political discussion, but of its literary imagination.
In the leading example of the ‘imperial novel’, now an accepted form, Pavel Krusanov constructs a counterfactual history of the 20th century. His bestseller Ukus Angela (‘Bite of the Angel’ – 200,000 copies) recounts a Russia that has never known a revolution, and instead of contracting in size, expands to absorb the whole of China and the Balkans, under the superhuman command of Ivan Nekitaev (‘Not-Chinese’), a tyrant of Olympian freedom from all morality. Vladimir Sorokin inverts the schema in his latest novel, Den’ Oprichnika (‘The Day of the Oprichnik’). By the year 2027 the monarchy has been restored in a self-enclosed Russia, surrounded by a Great Wall, and run by a reincarnation of Ivan IV’s corps of terrorists, under the thumb of China, whose goods and settlers dominate economic life, and whose language is the preferred idiom of the tsar’s children themselves.
These are fictions. The polyglot intelligence specialist Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics draws on Carl Schmitt and Halford Mackinder to counterpose powers of the sea (the Atlantic world centred on the US) to powers of the land, stretching from the Maghreb to China, but centred on Russia, as their natural adversary. Originally, Moscow-Berlin, Moscow-Tokyo and Moscow-Tehran featured as the three main axes in the front against America. Later, a Slavo-Turkish alliance has been conjured up. Borrowing the title of Armin Mohler’s work of 1949, Dugin terms the eventual victory of the powers of the land over those of the sea the ‘conservative revolution’ to come. His colleague Aleksandr Prokhanov, ‘the nightingale of the general staff’, doubles as bestselling novelist, with Gospodin Geksogen, a conspiracy tale of Putin’s ascent to power, and theorist of a new Eurasian imperium, celebrated in his Symphony of the Fifth Empire, just out. These are writers who have dabbled in the murky waters of the far right, but today enjoy a wider political and intellectual entrée. Dugin’s Geopolitics carries an introduction from the head of the strategy department of the general staff. Prokhanov’s Symphony, covered on national television, was launched under the patronage of Nikita Mikhalkov, in the presence of representatives of the ruling United Russia and the neo-liberal Union of Right Forces, Gaidar’s party.
The extravagance of these dreamlands of imperial recovery is an indication not of any feasible ambition, but of a psychology of compensation. The reality is that Russia’s rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer – this is often forgotten – than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third World countries alike – over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Although it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico.
More fundamental in the long run for the country’s identity than any of these changes, some of them temporary, may be the drastic alteration in its geopolitical setting. Russia is now wedged between a still expanding European Union, with eight times its GDP and three times its population, and a vastly empowered China, with five times its GDP and ten times its population. Historically speaking, this is a sudden and total change in the relative magnitudes flanking it on either side. Few Russians have yet quite registered the scale of the ridimensionamento of their country. To the west, just when the Russian elites felt they could at last rejoin Europe, where the country properly belonged, after the long Soviet isolation, they suddenly find themselves confronted with a scene in which they cannot be one European power among others (and the largest), as in the 18th or 19th century, but face a vast, quasi-unified EU continental bloc, from which they are formally – and, to all appearances, permanently – excluded. To the east, there is the rising giant of China, overshadowing the recovery of Russia, but still utterly remote to the minds of most Russians. Against all this, Moscow has only the energy card – no small matter, but scarcely a commensurate counter-balance.
These new circumstances are liable to deal a double blow to Russia’s traditional sense of itself. On the one hand, racist assumptions of the superiority of white to yellow peoples remain deeply ingrained in popular attitudes. Long accustomed to regarding themselves as – relatively speaking – civilised and the Chinese as backward, if not barbaric, Russians inevitably find it difficult to adjust to the spectacular reversal of roles today, when China has become an industrial powerhouse towering above its neighbour, and its great urban centres are exemplars of a modernity that makes their Russian counterparts look small and shabby by comparison. The social and economic dynamism of the PRC, brimming with conflict and vitality of every kind, offers a particularly painful contrast, for those willing to look, with the numbed apathy of Russia – and this, liberals might gloomily reflect, without even the deliverance of a true post-Communism. The wound to national pride is potentially acute.
Worse lies to the west. The Asian expanse of Russia, covering three-quarters of its territory, contains only a fifth of its population, falling fast. Eighty out of a hundred Russians live in the quarter of the land that forms part of Europe. Catherine the Great’s famous declaration that ‘Russia is a European country’ was not so obvious at the time, and has often been doubted since, by foreigners and natives alike. But its spirit is deeply rooted in the Russian elites, who have always – despite the urgings of Eurasian enthusiasts – mentally faced west, not east. In many practical ways, post-Communism has restored Russia to the ‘common European home’ that Gorbachev liked to invoke. Travel, sport, crime, emigration, dual residence are letting better-off Russians back into a world they once shared in the Belle Epoque. But at state level, with all its consequences for the national psyche, Russia – in being what cannot be included in the Union – is now formally defined as what is not Europe, in the new, hardening sense of the term. The injustice of this is obvious. Inconvenient though it may be for the ideologues of enlargement to acknowledge, Russia’s contribution to European culture has historically been greater than that of all the new member-states of the EU combined. In the years to come, it would be surprising if the relationship between Brussels and Moscow did not rub.
Few peoples have had to undergo the variety of successive shocks – liberation, depression, expropriation, attrition, demotion – that Russians have endured in the last decade and a half. Even if these, historically considered, are so far only a brief aftermath of the much vaster turbulences of the 20th century, it is no surprise that the masses are ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’. What they will eventually make of the new experiences remains to be seen. For the moment, the people are silent: Pushkin’s closing line applies – ‘narod bezmolvstvuet.’
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