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Russia's national zombie

All authoritarian regimes come to an end at some point. In Russia they tend to implode. The Putin regime is displaying many of the signs of impending collapse. Andrei Piontkovsky wonders whether the destruction of statehood can be avoided this time.

Andrei Piontkovsky
13 December 2010

The history of Russia’s successive authoritarian regimes displays a certain regularity:  they are not brought down by either the external blows of fate or onslaughts from their opponents. They usually perish from some strange internal disease: an unconquerable existential self-loathing, or simply because they have run their course and are suffering from Sartre’s la Nausée or the nausea of existence.

These feelings are masked by conformism and cynicism, but they eat up the regime from inside.

This was true of the late Tsarist period; and at the end of the Soviet regime. Now similar feelings are starting to manifest themselves under Putin’s “stabilisation” regime.

Feelings of hopelessness become more intense just at the point where hated regimes are on the skids and approaching the end of their life cycle. The feeling of desperation is the first sign that the end is nigh.

The Putin regime has made considerable efforts to asphalt over the whole of the political space surrounding it, but now we are witnessing its demise from that very same elevated disease. The regime was a PR creation, intended to resemble a great ideological project; in its brief 10-year existence it has offered a crude parody of all the classic stages of Soviet history.

Stage I: The original myth on which the system was based gave birth to the notion of a hero demiurge and “father of the nation”. The Bolsheviks had the October Revolution and the Civil War: the Putinoids had the Second Chechen War before the election, initiated by Basaev's incursion into Dagestan and the bomb attacks on apartment blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk.

Stage II: The period of Sturm und Drang:  Stalin’s policy may have been barbaric and contained the seeds of its own destruction, but it did achieve industrial modernisation.  Under the current regime we have the Great Energy Power, the doubling of VVP [in Russian the initials VVP stand both for G(ross) N(ational) P(roduct) and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, ed], farcically embodied in the parallel figure of Medvedev, Russia getting back on its feet and the endless dividing up and re-dividing of assets and resources.

Stage III: The culmination of triumphant heroism. The WWII victory and the creation of a superpower are reflected in today’s victory over Georgia and the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Stage IV: The exhaustion of the ideology and death of the regime. This stage of Soviet history lasted for 40 years.  The simulacra are disintegrating much more quickly because they have no organic rationale.

Authoritarian regimes usually perish from some strange internal disease [ ... ] Both the February revolution and Gorbachev’s perestroika were planned and executed by the ruling establishment, not the opposition. 

Two years ago the twin incarnations of VVP were still travelling round the world giving smug patronizing lectures to bourgeois audiences about Russia being an "Island of Stability" and the new world financial system with the rouble as a reserve currency. Today the political elite derives its chief understanding of the state of affairs on the Island from “Forward, Russia!”, that well known collective manifesto published under the pseudonym of Medvedev: a backwards raw materials economy, systemic corruption, the Caucasus ablaze and the population dying of alcoholism and drugs.

For the third time in a century we are living through the disintegration of an authoritarian regime: not because it is under siege by the opposition, more because it has lost its drive.  It has no hope of finding it again and is in the grip of nausea and self-loathing.  The fall of a regime of this kind has twice brought about the destruction of Russian statehood.

How can a repetition of this scenario be avoided the third time round?  For a responsible student of the political scene this is the only way of encapsulating the central problem of here and now. 

Some look back at our lamentable historical record and see the chief danger in the “democratic impatience” of our chaotic opposition.

I cannot agree.  It’s not even a question of the justice or injustice of the reproach levelled at the opposition.  What is more important is that today it has neither the organisation nor the resources to have any serious effect on the political dynamic.  The opposition at the time of perestroika was stronger and the revolutionary opposition to the tsarist regime was even stronger.

But the February revolution and Gorbachev’s perestroika were planned and executed by the ruling establishment, not the opposition.  The course of events was determined by the impatience of the establishment.  In the case of perestroika the party-KGB nomenklatura were in a hurry to reach the seductive heights of Western models of comfort and consumption.  In their rush toward this goal they abandoned everything - the ideology that had come to be so loathed, the empire and the state.  The democratic intelligentsia worked its passage by dancing enthusiastically to their tune and was subsequently declared a democratic nutcase, written off and tucked away so that it didn’t get under their feet.

"The ruling Soviet nomenklatura — flanked by junior researchers and scribblers from the Petersburg mayor’s office — have become one of the most stagnant and incapable classes in Russian history" Photo: www.kremlin.ru

The endgame of the doomed Putin regime will be played out first and foremost by the ruling class itself.  The country’s future depends on how responsibly it behaves.  An opposition will at best be able to affect these processes inside the regime only indirectly. 

That same ruling class of the late Soviet period that came out on top of the democratic revolution on the cusp of the 80s and 90s has been diluted with second- and third-ranking members of the nomenklatura, former thugs, black marketeers, majors from local intelligence stations in the back of beyond, junior researchers and scribblers from the Petersburg mayor’s office.  They are now all gracing the official (and unofficial) Forbes lists.  The vices of this class are all-embracing – the only thing they do not suffer from is impatience, especially where democracy is concerned.   On the contrary:  they are the class that is the most frozen, stagnant and incapable of any positive evolution in the history of dying authoritarian regimes.

Two years into his term a politician can be held to account for his presidency.  And for his place in history, if you will forgive my saying so.  Medvedev’s position is already clear:  by Putin’s slop bucket.

The same people who benefited from the waves of privatisation during the Eltsin and Putin years are still around. They are holding on for dear life to their yachts, residences, “Patek Phillippe” and other symbols of their fortuitous and greedy power.  They’ve had their hour in the sun. Their life has been a success and now the end of history has come for them.

The honorary chairman of the “Ozero” dacha cooperative [Putin, ed] will never voluntarily bring his enlightened rule to an end.  He will have no faith in guarantees or immunities – and anyway the members of the cooperative who are unanimous in demanding that the feast should continue will never let him go.  Which makes any discussion of the sincerity of Medvedev’s ideals completely irrelevant.

Halfway through an appointed term is an important date.  When someone has lived half his or her earthly life, he/she is answerable for who he/she is.  Two years into his term a politician can be held to account for his presidency.  And for his place in history, if you will forgive my saying so.  Medvedev’s position is already clear:  by Putin’s slop bucket.

Let’s look for instance at his behaviour after the terrorist attacks.  It can all be reduced to endless brutal calls to “take out” everyone, even those who wash and cook for the terrorists.

Medvedev and his advisors know all about the behaviour of our anti-terrorist forces, for whom going to the Caucasus is simply an opportunity to earn money.  They could not have failed to understand that the only result of their calls to obliterate the terrorists would be a significant increase in the number of extrajudicial executions of people who have nothing to do with the militants, and of violence against relatives of the suspects.   This in its turn will swell the ranks of suicide bombers and give rise to new terrorist attacks inside Russia.

The only possible explanation for such irresponsibility on the part of a lawyer and statesman is a desire to prove how tough he is, so that he is even a little bit like Uncle Volodya.  Two years of playing at thaws and being the liberal heir are over.  The wearer of the crown has been weighed up and found very wanting.

In my opinion it’s people’s cynical endurance of those in power that represents the greatest danger for Russian statehood, not the opposition's "democratic impatience".

Even the toughest authoritarian regime cannot rely entirely on violence.  It was no coincidence that the Hitler and Stalin regimes considered their ideology, or rather mythology, so important. This is what enabled the geniuses of Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl to flourish.

As far back as 1999 the Kremlin's cynical, dishonest spin doctors created a myth in a television test tube.  It was the myth of the young energetic security services officer sending Russian regiments deep into the Caucasus to bring terror and death to the terrorists and all the enemies of Russia which was once more getting up off its knees.

Russia's feminine soul was yearning for a master and commander, so she turned away from the respectable, but insipid, Evgenii Primakov to her young hero lover.  During the next election campaign Baikalinvest's seasoned Gruppenfuhrer was injected with another massive dose of the myth "The defender of the people engaging in selfless and ruthless battle with the oligarchs". VIPS of the right vintage from the world of culture, such as Nikita Mikhalkov and the younger Bondarchuk, flocked to him, drawn like moths to a lamp.

This all worked quite well for about 10 years until the onset of the the inevitable universal malaise and nausea.  It was very noticeable in the recent speech made by Leonid Parfyonov, star of Russian TV, who was until recently quite loyal to the regime.

The Putin myth is dead.  No amount of ritual kissing babies' tummies, sturgeon and sleeping tigresses, excursions on bikes and in racing cars can turn the clock back.  Attempting to cement society and freeze Russia for a minimum of 15 years by bowing down like heathens before the national zombie will be too much for even our trusting people, though they are used to all kinds of eccentricities on the part of their leaders.  This attempt is doomed to fail and will lead to a metaphysical catastrophe.  It's just more evidence of the Russian political elite's extremes of madness, impotence and irresponsibility.  I see Putin's «second coming» as a remake of Alexander Ivanov's famous canvas.

The mythic zombie carrying a mythic foetus, creasing up his face with the effort in a rather unpleasant way, staggers wearily through the burnt-out desert of Russian politics towards the kneeling notables frozen in attitudes of wistful expectation.

The head of the national foetus is bound with a ribbon on which is written in small letters "Freedom is better than no freedom".

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