We must act to reject Putin’s conservative ‘victory cult’
On the 77th anniversary of the end of Second World War, the anti-fascist inheritance of the Russian Federation faces catastrophe
For the past 20 years, the Putin regime has been shaping the Russian nation. They meant it to have two basic features: people would not bother with politics and would love the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War.
The Kremlin thus offered Russia’s urban middle class a non-aggression pact, funded by profits from oil sales: you keep out of politics, and we will not stop you from enjoying ‘Western’ standards of living and consumption. Meanwhile, the poor in Russia’s provinces were left with just the rallying cry about The Victory.
Outside Russia, other groups received a range of tempting offers.
Western elites were offered the narrative of a mild but firm authoritarianism that they could do business with. People who were unhappy about high levels of migration or the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements were invited to support Russia as a bastion of ‘traditional’ values. People who were unhappy about rampant neoliberalism and the dominance of NATO could support Russia as the anti-Western heir of the Soviet Union and the victory over fascism.
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Resolving the Ukraine crisis will mean ending all of this.
Putin’s early headaches
The first blow to Putin’s social contract came in a series of protests in 2011-12. Then, part of the Russian middle class, as well as other social groups, demanded not just a slice of the country’s riches, but respect from the regime.
A subsequent and more serious blow came in 2014. The Maidan uprising in Ukraine saw an upswing in the fortunes of the far Right and increased divisions within Ukrainian society. This was the moment when the Putin regime’s great fear took final shape: fear of a democratic revolution which, the regime believed, would be a ‘colour’ revolution, a coup by Russian liberal elites supported from the West.
Putin responded with anti-fascist rhetoric. His forces annexed Crimea, which, on the whole, was loyal to Russia. Then, he turned parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas regions into territories governed in tandem with repressive puppet regimes. The latter were tricked out with the trappings of the USSR and anti-fascism, both of which resonated with Donbas residents.
Yet in Russia, mass disaffection was growing at the grassroots level. Over corruption and inequality, rising retirement age, the way the ruling elite flaunted its wealth and the increasing role of the security agencies.
Alongside these concerns came others. First, the boundary between private and public, the personal and the political – a fundamental part of Russia’s depoliticised society – started to be challenged. A new feminist movement raised the issue of the violence permeating Russian society, including violence within the family. The sharp reaction of the ruling class and conservatives to the feminist agenda made it clear that it was a source of danger.
Second came the issue of massive centralisation: the uneven distribution of resources between Russia’s different territories and the national republics it comprises. The catalyst was anger at Putin’s policies in Chechnya, where the ruling regime was being awarded wholly disproportionate central state funding in return for its loyalty.
There are no truly powerful movements for national rights in Russia’s republics today. But this does not prevent the regime from being neurotically anxious about the federation collapsing into their borders. Ironically, this panic increases the probability of collapse. The state’s policy of marginalising national languages and reinforcing the status of Russians as the country’s ‘titular nation’ naturally provoked a negative reaction.
In place of social reforms, there would be a ‘small victorious war’ to rally Russian society
Third, Russia’s environmental movement has drawn strength from a succession of national campaigns and redrawn the boundaries between local, national and global threats. Ecologists defend local nature and cultures against Moscow’s desire to extract natural resources. But they also talk about problems of global climate change that no amount of Russian-style ‘sovereign democracy’ will be able to solve. It’s deeply unsettling for a regime obsessed with centralised control and national sovereignty.
Finally, Russia’s Communist Party has been channelling protest in the country since Alexey Navalny was poisoned and subsequently imprisoned in 2021. While Communist Party leaders express ritual support for the Russian state in exchange for their positions, at the grassroots level, there’s radical democratic sentiment.
This opens the way to a tactical coalition of two irreconcilable factions of Russia’s opposition and society itself: people nostalgic for the Soviet Union and stoutly anti-Soviet liberals. That would bridge the rupture which has enabled the regime to maintain its hegemony for so many years.
Looking forward to the Russian presidential election in 2024, the regime has seen all these developments as a head-on challenge. By February 2022, the Kremlin had decided to opt for a policy of substitutions to these existential problems.
In place of social reforms, there would be a ‘small victorious war’ to rally Russian society.
In place of improved social welfare, free medical care and education, there would be a promise to ‘restore the glories of the USSR’ for those who long for the Soviet Union.
In place of lower interest rates, there would be the opportunity to fight in a war – unlikely as that may sound to people in the West, this is attractive for anybody crushed by a burden of debt, especially if they were poor and from deprived cities.
This is an ‘operation’ to completely eradicate any possibility of political initiative outside the regime’s control. This is the effect of Putin’s conservative revolution today
In place of giving a fair deal to national minorities, there would be an opportunity to strut around like conquerors in European Ukraine.
In place of legislation against domestic violence, military propaganda would enter Russian kindergartens and Russian soldiers would rape women in occupied territory.
In place of a Green Deal for Russia, waste would be exported to the national republics, followed by threats to reduce the entire world to a pile of radioactive ash if other countries intervene in Ukraine.
In place of respect for neighbours, there would be plans to ‘denazify’ Ukraine, an essentially fascist policy of discriminating between ‘real’ Ukrainians (who recognise their ‘historical kinship’ with Russians and are not tainted with nationalism) and the rest (who need to be ‘denazified’).
There would be support for the most extreme reactionary forces and voices in Russia: far-Right and conservative commentators, security officials and clerics.
There would be Putin’s comment to, in effect, ‘lie back and think of Russia’, addressed to Ukraine and all the more barbaric in the aftermath of the torture and rape in Bucha.
For and against the Soviet Union
At the core of this ideology is an explosive mix of pre-revolutionary Russian imperial expansionism, the ideas of Putin’s favourite philosopher Ivan Ilyin, an anti-Bolshevik Nazi sympathiser, and the Soviet version of winning the Second World War.
So it’s logical that we can see signals of both a return to the Soviet past and its eradication in Russia today. For example, the Soviet symbols sitting alongside the swastika-like ‘Z’, the state’s symbol of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
The top-down reconstruction of ‘traditional values’ (an abstraction for a large part of society) and Great Russian messianism could not happen without appealing to a cult of ‘The Victory’, which exploits people’s still very real personal feelings over their family members who were affected by the Second World War.
To combat the threat of a Maidan-style or new Bolshevik revolution in Russia, you need to make the victory cult unchallengeable
The history of the Soviet Union and the actual victory in that war have, however, a revolutionary and genuinely anti-fascist side that is a threat to the regime.
The Soviet legacy includes the early Soviet period of decolonisation, the very local ‘comrades’ courts’ that tried crimes of domestic violence and hands-on champions of the environment who were ahead of their time. The USSR promoted well-received propaganda for ‘world peace’ and ‘friendship of peoples’. Today, acting on that progressive component of the Soviet legacy has been made a crime and it is being erased.
Under this logic, to combat the threat of a Maidan-style or new Bolshevik revolution in Russia, you need to make the victory cult unchallengeable. The war against Ukraine is thus an invasive surgical procedure on both Russia’s national history and its culture. It is an ‘operation’ to completely eradicate any possibility of political initiative outside the regime’s control. This is the effect of Putin’s conservative revolution today.
Does this conservative revolution have any chance of succeeding?
Lenin once called Russia ‘the weak link in global capitalism’. The need to overcome Russia’s backwardness and underdevelopment on the edge of Europe led to revolutionary modernisation involving colossal sacrifices. But the 1917 revolution also led to a global chain reaction in the form of the Chinese and other national liberation revolutions, and to the dominant confrontation in the 20th century: between fascism and communism.
Ultimately, the USSR, crushed by competition with the West, unable to find a place in the post-industrial world economy, collapsed. Unable to adapt the traditional liberal templates (free market = political democracy), post-Soviet Russia has finally reverted to where it was a century ago: a regime incapable of providing a progressive response to demands for social, territorial, national and cultural equality. Today, it can retain territory and the loyalty of its citizens only by falling back on revanchist resentment, external military expansion and internal dictatorship.
This war is, in effect, an attempt to split the nucleus of the Russian nation, in order to release new, reactionary energy
We spent too long arguing over whether the USSR was a good or a bad thing. We failed to identify the progressive features of our past and to incorporate them into our democratic future. We had the blueprint for a new, democratic alternative which would have overcome Putin’s shutdown of political initiative while also putting an end to the excesses of the 1990s. We were unable to implement it, however, before a scared dictator realised time was running out for him.
This war is, in effect, an attempt to split the nucleus of the Russian nation, in order to release new, reactionary energy. It is unquestionably suicidal. The only question is whether it will result in the suicide of the regime, the suicide of the Russian nation or the suicide of the entire human species.
What is to be done? The first priority must be to support the people of Ukraine in every way possible. The destruction of Ukraine, with its factories and fields that feed half the world, would be not only a physical but an immense moral loss for humanity, a nuclear strike against the entire history of democracy and anti-imperialism.
Second, the anti-war movement in Russia deserves support. Its members, in all honesty, feel they are in the same situation as the opposition to fascism in Nazi Germany.
Third, ordinary Russians deserve support on the grounds that there is no umbilical link between them and Putin, just as the ‘collective West’ that the regime’s propagandists keep telling them about does not exist.
What do exist is millions of Europeans who are profoundly shocked by what the Russian army is getting up to in Ukraine, but who at the same time recognise that, besides the dictator in the Kremlin, his electorate and a tradition of Russian imperialism, a share of responsibility lies also with them and the political elites they support. With everybody who used cheap Russian gas while turning a blind eye to the crimes of the regime. With those who at the very beginning supported Putin as a guarantor of neoliberal reforms in Russia and of no return to the USSR. With those who naively fell for Putin’s claims of a multipolar world as a valid alternative to the hegemony of NATO.
What is needed to get out of this crisis is not only an end to Putin’s atrocious war, but a repudiation of the highly unjust and obsolete order that Europe has been living under for decades.
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