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Full steam backwards

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Repressive laws, socialist icons, and the promotion of Eurasian identity amount to a regression to the Soviet past, says Daniil Kotsyubinsky. Russian society has moved on, however, and the Kremlin will have to tread very carefully to avoid an explosion of protest. 

Daniil Kotsyubinsky
10 May 2013

The process currently unfolding in Russia could in all truth be described as sheepish terrorism.  Not, of course, because Putin & Co feel any shame for what they are doing, but because the Kremlin is almost certain that any loud statements about the ultimate goals of its project would most likely spark conflict. Or, more precisely, a velvet (or colour) revolution.

This anxiety clearly stems from recent historical experience. What, after all, is the Kremlin doing at the moment? It is quietly and imperceptibly attempting to reinstate ‘Soviet power’ based on the triad of Count Sergey Uvarov (1786-1855): Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. This entails the promotion of a deeply patriarchal – prison camp – model for the relationship between government and society, with the ‘father of the nation’ as the camp commander and his ‘children’ as the inmates for whom absolutely everything is forbidden. In other words, the Kremlin has laid out all the ancient, patriarchal rakes and is trying to avoid the inevitable smack in the face by stepping on them with great care, though it’s quite clear that as soon as one ‘planned’ step is taken, the rake will swing up and do just that.

But why did Putin, an old hand who was doing very well at the time, suddenly decide to abandon his populist games of ‘sovereign democracy’ and ‘freedom for the majority’ to embark on such a radical stylistic rebranding?

Opposition and government reaction

For the first 10 years Putin tried to be like the ‘noble tsar’ from the imperial national anthem, ‘whose rule brings joy to us and fear to our foes’.  But subjects, as is well known, are ingrates and boors, whose love is even more fickle than the heart of a beautiful woman. This became abundantly clear after the political analysts’ standard ‘8 golden years’, when the image of the charismatic leader suddenly started to pall.  People began laughing louder and with greater gusto at the politically slumped figure of Putin who had failed to become a figure of awe or terror for the majority of the population. His notorious job switch with Dmitry Medvedev (September 2011) completed the ongoing process of his slide down the ratings and protest began to foment. He was catcalled in a stadium and, in December 2011, 120,000 furious Muscovites went out on to Bolotnaya Square.

This didn’t result in instant revolution because the opposition lacked effective leaders: they all turned out to be dilettantes, cowards or obvious secret collaborators.  But, though the spark of revolution failed to catch this time, it was clear that society’s firewood was already tinder dry and something needed to be done. Putin didn’t have much room for manoeuvre. After all, he couldn’t retire, could he? Amicable ways of making people love him had failed, so it had to be done in other ways.

As a result, Russian citizens of all levels have been swamped with a veritable meteorite shower of prohibitions and intimidation. The Pussy Riot girls were put in prison as an example to all; strict age limitations and the stratification of media and public entertainment were introduced; swearwords in the media or the internet were banned, as was the dissemination of information among the under-16s, or indeed about them, which could do them emotional damage.  Laws are being passed at breakneck speed prohibiting the dissemination of gay propaganda, and condemning the ‘mockery of religious beliefs.’ Big cities are seeing a proliferation of Cossack vigilante groups, whose aim is to keep track of public morality.  Alcohol sales have been restricted to certain hours; NGOs are once more being harassed to pay money or to make spontaneous disclosures.  In the regions there is an upsurge of independent police rule-making: in St Petersburg, for example, there is a new law prohibiting loud noises, screaming, singing and moving of furniture at night (the first draft of the law also included bans on loud sex after 11pm), and a ban on more than 1 dog and 2 cats at a time is in preparation.

In a word, the government is saying to its people ‘You are a young dolt who has to be treated strictly.  I am the government, your wise and strict parent, and am no longer prepared to look askance at you messing about doing nothing!’

The big idea

However, the understanding that of itself this kind of talk could lead straight into a repetition of the events of 1991 has compelled the Kremlin to do more than just reprimand. Attempts are being made to resurrect the ‘great fear’, which has not been seen in Russia since before perestroika. This can only be done by means of a convincing Terror affecting all levels of society.

But terror needs to be backed up by a big idea and one that works. There is, however, no such idea.  There are only vague hints of Russian nationalism, wrapped in a Eurasian burqa and the torn rags of ritual democratic rhetoric.  These strange and shameful propaganda clothes, which conceal the government’s ideological idea from the people, will doom ‘Putin’s new project’ to certain failure.

'Terror needs to be backed up by a big idea and one that works. There is, however, no such idea.  There are only vague hints of Russian nationalism, wrapped in a Eurasian burqa and the torn rags of ritual democratic rhetoric.' 

No easily defined authoritarian idea, no Terror either…only a sham, which doesn’t so much terrify as enrage the wider public. As, for instance, increasingly does the fake ‘battle with corruption’ and the decanting of sour official wine out of ‘United Russia’ bottles into the triumphantly re-labelled bottles of the National Front. 

But what’s the problem, one might ask? Why is it apparently so insoluble? For 15 years political analysts, practically in unison, have been reading one and same set of tea leaves to try and work out when the Kremlin will, at last, launch its last ideological reserve – Russian nationalism.

The Kremlin is dragging its heels.  Not difficult to guess why.  For rulers of Russia flirting with Russian nationalism in earnest is extremely dangerous.  On the one hand, it would seem the right thing to do: set Russians and non-Russians at each other’s throats, turn a vertical conflict into a horizontal one, scare the people with ‘American’, ‘Islamic’, ‘Zionist’ and other threats.  In a word, divide and rule ‘to bring joy to us and fear to our foes.’

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Vasya Lozhkin's ironic depiction of contemporary nationalist/imperialist discourse. The cartoon shows a 'great wonderful Russia' surrounded by 'wogs', 'slant-eyed monkeys', 'krauts', 'potato-eaters', and 'other faggots'.  Photo: (cc) Flickr/vasya-lozhkin.ru

But it’s not that simple. There are 19% non-Russians living in the country. This means that Russian nationalism’s scornful rejection of the ‘chimera of Russian heritage’ presupposes immediate conflict with all the ‘other nations’, as it de facto dooms them to second class citizenship. Some of these citizens are extremely proud and energetic – the Chechens, for example. Ostensibly, they have been reconciled to their status as part of Russia with the stick of an extremely expensive war and the carrot of equally expensive and very humiliating obeisances and financial handouts.

It’s not difficult to conceive what would happen if the Kremlin were suddenly to announce a ‘Russian crusade’ against ‘separatists and extremists’, immigrants with different skin colours, Jews, Masons and other enemies of the nation. The empire would simply explode – and quite quickly too.

So ‘Russia for the Russians’, however attractive a slogan it may appear to the Kremlin, is a complete no-no.

Then what?

All that’s left to offer society is nationalism disguised as ‘Eurasianism’. Indeed, some months after the events of Bolotnaya Square, Vladimir Putin announced his policy of Eurasian integration and the setting up of a Euro-Asiatic Union with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan as members, and other Asiatic states to join at some point in the future. This is essentially reformatting the old idea of a family of nations united in brotherhood, with Russia as the older brother. The difference this time is that the idea is being promoted under the Orthodox cross, rather than the Communist star.

'The attempts to foment Terror at grassroots level don’t so much scare the people, as lead them to conclude that someone in the Kremlin has clearly lost the plot.'

But here too there are problems! It’s not only that, diplomatically, this idea is a complete non-starter, running into understandable opposition from independent states with little desire to have Moscow as their elder brother. It’s more that the Eurasian ideology goes down very badly domestically. One way or another, it’s predicated on that part of Russian society which supports both nationalism and the idea of Russia as a great power. But who is the main enemy for these people? Asians and Caucasians — because ‘they’ve flooded in’, ‘they take away our jobs’, ‘behave badly’, ‘ barely speak Russian’, ‘have no respect for Russian culture’ and so on and so forth; and because huge sums are despatched from the Russian budget to the Caucasus, which provokes special envy and hatred. Nationally-minded parts of Russian society may not be quite able to accept the Eurasian ideology, at least in its classical version and could therefore quite quickly result in exasperation and very violent protest.

The Kremlin, with Putin at its head, has got itself into an impossible position, where any move it might make is going to significantly weaken its position. Moreover, the attempts to foment Terror at grassroots level don’t so much scare the people, as lead them to conclude that someone in the Kremlin has clearly lost the plot. Whatever the new stages of Putin’s current ‘special operation’ to rein in his teenagers i.e. the people, might be, we can already say that they will produce results very different from those expected by the Kremlin. When the people actually understand they are not only being deceived and robbed, but continually rebuked and taught how to lead their lives, then they will simply repeat what they did in 1991.

Putin can comfort himself as much as likes with the thought that, unlike Gorbachev, he won’t allow ‘idle chatterers’ to provoke a revolt, but times are changing and we no longer need a Gorbachev to maintain the idea of Glasnost [openness]. We have the internet. And a new generation of citizens who may not have learnt to live a free life, but have already lost the habit of fear.

So the future doesn’t belong to Putin and his team of post-Soviet political dinosaurs.  It belongs to those whom the Kremlin is trying so awkwardly to ‘punish and put in the corner.’

Part of a 5-part oDR expert symposium on Putin's third term. See other contributions:
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