Putin's Russia — "United", but not real


The elections are drawing nearer and Putin’s United Russia party has stepped up its claims to represent the real Russia and the majority of Russians. But things are never that simple. Poel Karp looks at the wider historical picture, considering the meaning of democracy and how necessary it is for Russia to survive in today’s world.

Poel Karp
3 August 2011

Preparations for the national voting ceremony are gathering momentum.  Guesstimates abound as to which member of the tandem will once more become president, though the national leader would prefer to leave the decision until nearer the time. If things don’t change for the worse he would, of course, rather leave the incumbent with the reserve of the illusions he has created.  If they do, then the leader will have to take the reins himself.  There's even less point in trying to guess what will happen in the Duma, as everything will be sewn up and go through on the nod.


Putin thinks of Russia as a mighty power vertical, yet in 
so doing fails to acknowledge the full horizontal diversity 
of the country

To imagine that the fraudulent vote counts are the only thing that’s wrong and to appeal for honest elections is ridiculous. Why should the authorities give this appeal the time of day, when in Moscow with its 10 million inhabitants not more than 2 – 3,000 people can be mustered for a protest demonstration? Assurances and hints that this election will be free and fair are simply propaganda for the authorities, whether conscious or just naïve. There's no arguing with a large fist, and the might of the OMON riot police definitely constitutes right.

As in Pushkin's Boris Godunov, the people are silent. They're not fools and anyway the fact that glasnost [transparency] has been replaced by the unanimous opinions spouted on television makes it difficult to work out what's what. Many believe that the system put in place by Yeltsin and strengthened by Putin is actually capitalism, and would prefer the mass poverty and empty shelves of socialism at its height to the blatant inequality of today. What was, what is now and why the state which seemed so powerful crashed in the blink of an eye is beyond the understanding of most.

The collapse of the USSR brought xenophobia to the surface and even people who didn't seem to be particularly that way inclined started finding it more attractive than amicable coexistence. For Putin Russia is the vertical of power; for [activist] Yevgeny Ikhlov a melting pot (though no one thinks to ask non-Russians living in Russia’s autonomous regions if they want to be in a melting pot); and for [nationalist writer] Alexander Prokhanov it's an empire, even within its present boundaries. They want the United Russia party to be identified with Mighty Russia, just as the communists wanted non-party members to observe internal Party rules. The new imperial ideology is more forthright than the Soviet ideology. There aren't any universities of Putinism-Medvedism.  But the empire known as the Russian Federation does not only reduce different peoples to a common denominator – it does something much more drastic in that it distorts social relationships.

“The Bolsheviks … the Nazis … the ayatollahs in Iran  … are strikingly different from each other, but they are all characterized by an inability to compromise and unwillingness to take anyone else into account. Which leads to catastrophe.”

Soviet demagogues babbled on about the peasants and the working class, but they were much franker about their desire to unite everyone by force and had only one party, for  'all the people'. Any idea of divergence between the interests of the peasants and the workers was sedition. Formally, different parties are a possibility these days, but it's impossible to get one's head round which part of society they represent (and 'party' means 'part'). They are also parties for all the people, rival groupings in the same ruling class.  Which is why our showcase democracy is unconvincing. Society hasn't moved on from the 'classless' unity of Soviet times:  it doesn't know what classes and social groups it contains or what the interests of each might be.

Our false democracy is called dermokratia [‘shitocracy'] for that reason.  The Greek term democracy means the power of the people, but the translation doesn't make it clear who 'the people' are. For the Greeks it was only ‘pure’ i.e. adult male citizens. Others, such as women, natives of other cities, freed slaves and, naturally, slaves could not be part of the people. In the USSR everyone was theoretically included, but in practice it was the same ‘pure’ citizens that were in charge – not even all the Communist Party members, but only its nomenklatura, whether at district, regional or Central Committee level. It was this self-perpetuating power that was called Soviet democracy. 

Since the 13th century our modern understanding of democracy has encompassed more than the 'pure citizens'. The English parliament included the barons, knights' representatives, city dwellers and free peasants. The interests of all the independent strata of society were represented, albeit not in equal measure. Democracy is a representative system, a fluid compromise of the classes and social groupings that go to make up society. To enable her to survive in today's world, Russia, diverse and enormous as she is, desperately needs internal cooperation. Compromise, not subservience, is the essence of a modern democracy. 

In the USSR this was not allowed – not because the 1917 Communist leaders lacked good intentions: they were sincere in their desire for improvement, they believed they were building 'God's kingdom' on earth and that fire and the sword could be used not only to conquer evil, but to do good. Many religions and ideologies believe the same and each one declares that it alone has the solution for everyone. It sees no need to listen to those it wishes to benefit, who fail to understand how lucky they are. In the past too there was no attempt at compromise with those who didn't agree; indeed it was considered logical to kill objectors, burn them or let them rot in camps. Those leaders who wanted things to be for the best, though they turned out as they always do, killed off tens of millions of people.


“Soviet demagogues babbled about the peasants and the
working class, but they were much franker about their
desire to unite everyone by force”

Movements of this kind grow up in various conditions and promise happiness to different people. The Bolsheviks promised it to the workers (on more than one occasion Lenin explained how inimical the peasants and the intellectuals were to communism); the Nazis to the Germans, the ayatollahs in Iran to the Muslims. They are strikingly different from each other, but they are all characterized by an inability to compromise and unwillingness to take anyone else into account. Which leads to catastrophe. Nazi Germany lost the war for that reason, though they had the best army. The Soviet Union, where the only correct decisions were taken by the party and the government, and the individual's rights and creative freedom were ignored, collapsed for that very reason. 20 years ago our country changed its outward appearance, but it has remained a vertical, indifferent to the masses and not listening to them. Where there is a vertical, there cannot be democracy.

Democracy can be suppressed and not only as obviously as it was in the Soviet Union.  The powers that be pretend that now there is an opposition, while at the same time deciding what kind of opposition they want, who can stand for election and suppressing the openness which is the only way of gaining an understanding of what is going on. But it's worth remembering what is missing when there's no democracy. A democratic government is obliged to take account of objective reality and autocratic despotism brought catastrophe to Russia three times in the 20th century. Nikolai II obstinately refused to allow basic reforms, which led to the Revolution of 1917; Stalin's collectivisation and terror led to the tragic defeat of 1941 and Brezhnev's extra-economic militarisation led to the collapse of the USSR.

In a democracy citizens have an influence on the government, but the social order becomes economic only when the democracy is liberal. Liberalism means that freedom is not just a whim or a caprice, but a condition of development. It legalises the citizens’ will to be free of the state in their private affairs, as long as they harm no one. It separates the concepts of power and ownership, which in Russia are still inseparable.

In a structured economy the state has power and the private citizen has ownership. A liberal, democratic government protects this ownership from itself, the government. But even capitalism didn't achieve a complete understanding of private ownership straight away. The idea that the work force is also private ownership, which the worker sells, or rather hires out, wasn't born instantly. It is not universally recognised that intellectual property is also private ownership, though this recognition changes the nature of production and social relationships. Democracy has forced the state to compromise and liberalism has removed the obstructions to private and personal activity. But our state still holds on by force and uncompromisingly obstructs everything it has not initiated, continuing to rule and direct everything as it always has.

“Voting ceremonies won't achieve regime change, but they will remind us of how absurd it is to apply Gazprom’s vertical to Russia’s horizontal contour lines, which are crying out for self-rule from north to south and east to west”

That the oligarchs are managed by the state is already clear. Private media have been reduced to a minimum, so can no longer be described as ‘mass’ media. Permission has to be sought for any activity allowed by the Constitution. The word liberalism is only used with reference to Yeltsin's rapacious reforms. We are assured that the Soviet past is finished and we now have a market, and therefore capitalist, economy. But the slave-owning economy of Rome also had the market, though it was not capitalist. Capitalism arose in the labour and intellectual property markets. In the capitalist system it was these, rather than consumer goods, that were widely sold and bought, not coerced and confiscated.

We are still hampered by the Soviet principles of centralism, guidelines handed down from on high, and the idea that the state can do what it likes in respect of the personal and the private. Corporate raiding and large-scale corruption are not the fruits of capitalism, but a way of keeping state property in the hands of the ruling elite, which effectively had collective ownership of it in Soviet times. That form of totalitarianism bankrupted itself at the beginning of the 80s. Gorbachev, Ligachev and others, sensing the state the economy was in, realised that the imminent catastrophe would be irreparable. Gorbachev managed to delay it with bold political measures, but he failed to introduce corresponding economic measures – either he didn't know what to do, or he was restrained by his friends who were subsequently to be members of the State Committee for the State of Emergency in 1991. The combined forces of the Committee and Yeltsin managed to get rid of Gorbachev, the USSR collapsed and the Russian economy was refashioned in the worst way possible.

The oil and gas boom saved the situation in the short term, but time is passing and 20 years down the line the ruling class is still thinking in the same way, even when it attempts to modernise.  It seems to have forgotten that Peter the Great's borrowed modernisation was only partially successful, and the current situation is no different:  a borrowed modernisation without democracy, liberalism, a labour or intellectual property market could work for Skolkovo, but not for the whole country, which will still be ruled by force.

Gorky used to recount how Lenin would say that “you shouldn't stroke anyone's head these days, because they'll bite your hand off.  We have to hit them on the head mercilessly, although ideally we are against any form of violence.”  Putin called for people to be coshed on the head without even explaining how this might correspond to his ideals. Voting ceremonies won't achieve regime change, but they will remind us of how absurd it is to apply Gazprom’s vertical to Russia’s horizontal contour lines, which are crying out for self-rule from north to south and east to west. They need this, so that at the next crash, towards which our wise leadership is taking us, Russia will not once more be handed over to the nomenklatura, as she was in the 1990s. 


Thumbnail credit - www.edinros.ru

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