Alice-in-Wonderland Russia

Artemi Troitsky
14 March 2005

I can understand, even appreciate, the motivation behind Mary Dejevsky’s “defence” of Vladimir Putin in openDemocracy. If our top guy was still George W Bush’s best friend, he wouldn’t deserve such sympathy; now, as he comes under intense political fire, no wonder that (as in a Pavlov’s dog reflex) he starts to appear fragile, understandable and almost nice. It’s the underdog defence.

What does this consist of? In Mary Dejevsky’s hands, two basic suggestions are involved: first, Russia is barely governable, the power tools are weak, and Putin is desperately trying to keep things in order; second, Putin’s main opponents inside the country are not the “democrats” the west prefers to see, but anti-reformist communists and nationalists.

Artemi Troitsky is replying to Mary Dejevsky’s openDemocracy article, “The west gets Putin wrong” (March 2005)

Mary Dejevsky makes less of Putin’s more obviously vicious foreign policy, including clumsy efforts to crack down on democratic and liberal developments in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, while supporting feudalist-totalitarian governments in Belarus and central Asia. Yet even on the internal matters which she focuses on, there is an elementary ethical question I want to pose: is it ok to pursue good goals by dirty deeds? Is it right to maintain democratic reforms by purely Stalinist methods such as destroying freedom of speech and ordering courts to take politically-motivated decisions?

The answer is no: this is as ridiculous as the old “support world peace or I’ll kill you” joke.

Are the goals announced by Putin’s administration and seen as reforms in fact the reforms we need? They are not. Russia is Alice’s Wonderland, where many, if not most, things are not what they seem. Three examples. First, the so-called “monetisation”, presented to the west as a liberal economic reform scrapping “Soviet-style” privileges and benefits in favour of “modern-style” cash compensations in reality is a device creating huge new funds and unlimited opportunities for theft and corruption (leaving aside the fact that the compensations are inadequate and unfair). Considering that Russia is now overblown with petrodollars, this is not merely “a mistake” but purely evil.

Second, the old folks’ protest over pensions has nothing to do with communist or nationalist sentiment; it’s simply the fury of humiliated people who’ve been cynically cheated once again and made even more “underprivileged” by the authorities (including Putin himself).

Third, Yukos has been presented to the more naïve westerners as a punishment for tax evasion; for those slightly more sophisticated as a punishment for Mikhail Khodorkovsky taking too many risks and supporting the political opposition. (message to BP or Exxon: be friends and donors to Mr Putin, don’t get involved in Russia’s political and humanitarian affairs, and you’ll be safe). Yet for those who know the true Russian ways it has always been 100% clear that the dominant motivation behind attacking Yukos was pure greed, to bite off the juiciest piece of privatised industry and share it among the very top executives of the Putin clan. This grab-it-while-you-can instinct is so strong that none of the ensuing international-economic-political disasters could tame it (which wouldn’t be the case if the motivation had been purely political).

The monetisation, pensioners, and Yukos affairs reveal that, in contrast to his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev (a social democrat) and Boris Yeltsin (a liberal), Putin and his team have no ideology whatsoever. He likes to call himself “a pragmatist”, and he really is – in the most selfish and avid sense of the word. To many, such pragmatism is still welcome as compared to fundamentalism of any kind. What is interesting is that the newest form of opposition to Putin, now very fast in the making, is also totally non-ideological and has very little, if anything, to do with nationalist and communist beliefs.

In Russia, unlike Ukraine, there is no pro-Russia/pro-Europe or pro-reform/anti-reform divide. What unites such disparate social groups and sects as pensioners and young anarchists, soldiers’ mothers and environmentalists, small entrepreneurs and old dissidents is far removed from left/right or communist/democratic dichotomies. It’s a moral thing. Roughly speaking, it feels like “us” – cheated, humiliated, censored, robbed – versus almighty, manipulative, grasping, and arrogant “them”.

Honesty and corruption now seem to be far more relevant words in Russia than, say, democracy and imperialism (one may suggest, of course, that democracy means morality and human rights; but we’ve heard this tale many times from the most untrustworthy sources, including Bush and Putin). I see no reason why all good-willing people in the west shouldn’t support this kind of opposition to Russia’s president.

I do agree with Mary Dejevsky that Vlad Putin is a weak leader and, generally, quite an ordinary (to put it politely) human being – which, in the given circumstances, is good rather than bad. He’s not an egomanic tyrant and he certainly doesn’t control all the nasty developments happening in today’s Russia. But he does bear the responsibility for the current wrongdoings, because he created and blessed and keeps maintaining the dark, KGB-style (sorry for the cliché) ambience of fear and obedience in the country.

Also on Russia, its president and its “near abroad” in openDemocracy:

Alex de Waal, “The north Caucasus: politics or war?” (August 2004)

Charles Grant, “Russia’s future in balance: Putin versus Khodorkovsky” (August 2003)

Sergei Markov & Robert Daniels, “America’s Russia question” (October 2004)

Alexander Motyl, “How Ukrainians became citizens” (November 2004)

Charles Grant & Katynka Barisch, “Ukraine should not be part of a ‘great game’” (December 2004)

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I mean, if the president launches a “military-patriotic national TV channel” (we’ve left North Korea behind, haven’t we?), why wouldn’t our puppet parliament adopt a new law obliging all firemen and rescue workers to submit to an army draft? If he talks all the time (to domestic audiences) about foreign plots aiming at the destruction of mighty Russia, why wouldn’t local courts send ageing scientists and environmentalists to jail for sending abroad “secret information” (freely available on the internet, as activists proved)? And so on.

International solidarity and support for all kinds of civilised (ie non-terrorist) opposition to Putin’s regime is absolutely crucial for the survival of Russia as a free country.

The Ukrainian scenario is quite unlikely to happen here (I hope the future will prove me wrong). We’re not talking popular revolution, but rather preventing Russia from sliding down towards “velvet dictatorship” of the Belarus type or even something harder of the Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan type. Here international pressure and public opinion in the democratic countries will mean an awful lot.

You see, the Soviet communist elite, from Joseph Stalin to Leonid Brezhnev, has enjoyed unlimited power and privileges within the state borders of their USSR / eastern bloc, and didn’t care too much about how they were perceived in the outside world, to which they didn’t bear any “human” connections. This is not the case with Putin & co, who are busy purchasing luxurious property in London’s Knightsbridge and France’s Cote d’azure, keeping money in Swiss banks, and sending kids to study at exclusive Eton school and Harvard University. They do not want to follow the path of international pariahs such as Alexander Lukashenko or the “Turkmenbashi”, who are unaccepted by the world community and cut off from its indiscreet charms on a global scale. For them, that would be extremely “unpragmatic”.

I don’t consider myself an expert on the profound issues of politics, economy and communication. My view is a down-to-earth one and based on common sense rather than politology. The conclusion is clear: despite the fact that there’s no visible personal alternative to Putin, he does deserve all the backlash he’s getting now, because life in Russia for us Russians stinks these days, and the attitude of the authorities sucks.

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