Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Russia, over the cuckoo’s nest

President Putin’s first 100 days have been quite dramatic, with protests becoming edgier and draconian laws being introduced in response. It might be said that events in Russia are developing along the lines of Milos Forman's great film, says Dmitri Travin

One hundred days have elapsed since the inauguration of Vladimir Putin. This was his third ascent to the presidential throne, so one might have been justified in expecting more of the same, but these 100 days have shown a clear change of course in the Kremlin. There are new tough laws on demonstrations, NGOs and libel in the media, which contradict the spirit of political liberalisation declared by Dmitry Medvedev during his last months as president.

A brief examination of what has happened shows that events in Putin’s Russia are developing in roughly as they do in Milos Forman’s inspired film ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’. Jack Nicholson’s hero has been put into a psychiatric hospital and tries to insist on his basic rights by asking that patients be allowed to watch TV in the evenings. This conflicts with the established rules and is, therefore, forbidden. The staff of the hospital explain politely, with absolutely no pressure, to the rebel that his wish might not accord with the wishes of the other patients, who are used to peace in the evening.

'A brief examination of what has happened shows that events in Putin’s Russia are developing in roughly as they do in Milos Forman’s inspired film ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’.

Our hero then demands that it be put to the vote. The authorities have nothing against the use of democratic methods because they know that it will not occur to the unfortunate inmates to insist on changing regulations handed down to them from above. And, indeed, Jack Nicholson is almost alone, but he won’t give up and starts campaigning.

By the time events reach the third stage he has achieved a degree of success. He manages to get a majority vote among the patients able more or less to grasp the situation. But then staff tactics take an unexpected turn. The matron says that the majority has to encompass all the patients, even the seriously disturbed who are unable to make any real sense of what’s going on. The argument is a humane one: they are people too and we can’t ignore their opinion.

At the fourth stage Jack Nicholson achieves the impossible and obtains an absolute majority. It is only now, when the authorities’ demagogic arguments have been exhausted, that they turn to force – electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The rebellion may have been crushed, but it begins to dawn on some of the patients that the system is unfair and that the existing order could be overturned.

Voluntary hospitalisation

Putin’s 12 years in power (including Medvedev’s presidency) mirror fairly accurately the development of this brilliant film, released in the 1970s.

Putin’s first term (2000-04) was a period when, in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Russia’s citizens, the new government had obvious advantages by comparison with the difficult ‘90s. The long-awaited economic recovery resulted in improved standards of living, so almost no one was worried by a few infringements of rights and freedoms. Expressing that in the language of the psychiatric hospital, Russia was being regularly fed, had a soft bed and tranquillisers to help it forget the passions governing people outside the madhouse.

'The long-awaited economic recovery resulted in improved standards of living, so almost no one was worried by a few infringements of rights and freedoms. Expressing that in the language of the psychiatric hospital, Russia was being regularly fed, had a soft bed and tranquillisers to help it forget the passions governing people outside the madhouse.'

As the film unfolds it becomes apparent that most of the patients have been hospitalised of their own accord and, therefore, concur with the considerable limitation of their freedom. They were, after all, not strong enough to live in the outside world with its constant problems. A large section of Russia’s population joyfully accepted the Putin regime in exactly the same way: the increase in the oil price created the impression that the authorities would always be able to ensure that there was sufficient to eat, somewhere to live and enough entertainment to make people forget about politics.

The regime’s first crisis came in 2004. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested, a small, but energetic, opposition group formed in Russia, whose opinion it was that Russia was moving in the wrong direction. Intellectuals saw that the economic reforms had ground to a halt, that Russia had become completely dependent on foreign sales of oil and gas, that the violent crushing of Chechnya had resulted in terrible bloody terrorism, and that corruption had now reached a scale hitherto unknown.

How did Putin react to this? Hardly at all. He was confident of majority support, which he did really have, even in such centres of intellectual excellence as Moscow and St Petersburg. I know from personal experience that rational arguments about the regime’s inefficiency were acceptable only within a very limited circle of thinking people. A significant section of the population considered that Putin was doing everything right, giving people an opportunity to earn a living, improve their standard of life and have pleasant holidays; if there were problems, then they would sort themselves out at some point further down the line.

At that time the leaders of the democratic opposition were rather like Jack Nicholson, who was doing his utmost to get the patients to see they had to fight for their rights. The patients look at him vacantly, unable to grasp how they can question the daily routine instituted by staff, who certainly know better than they do how life best to arrange their life.

President Medvedev’s ‘rebellion’

We come now to the third stage: doubts and vague hopes for change. In truth, though, in our case it was the ‘hospital staff’ themselves who managed to ‘rock the boat’, rather than the rebellious members of the opposition, as it had been in the film. To abide by the constitution Putin had to yield up his post for one presidential term to a man from his own team – the totally obedient and uncharismatic Medvedev. The idea was that he would sit out four years as president and then return the reins of government to their rightful owner.  In one sense Putin’s plan did actually succeed.  He got his power back, but not before his temporary replacement had managed, against his wishes, to ‘rock the boat’, almost as Jack Nicholson did.

Medvedev talked of the need for modernisation, the importance of transforming the law-enforcement agencies, the stranglehold of corruption and the need to repair relations with the leading Western countries. He almost never criticised Putin personally or spoke about the corruption in the higher echelons of power. However, ideas about the disadvantages of an authoritarian regime were nevertheless taking hold in Russian minds and no longer just in the minds of that small group of intellectuals, able to search for information in the internet and come to their own conclusions about life. Medvedev appeared on TV and was extensively quoted in the Kremlin-dependent mass media, so his ideas reached a considerably wider audience than the ideas of the opposition leaders. Although Medvedev’s ideas about modernisation were woolly and much less well formed than those of the opposition on many fronts, he was able, as part of the Kremlin propaganda machine, to achieve more than he himself had imagined.

'Putin’s return to the throne was received negatively, not only by those intellectuals who had been acting independently since Khodorkovsky’s arrest but by many who had previously been loyal to the regime.'

Putin’s return to the throne was received negatively, not only by those intellectuals who had been acting independently since Khodorkovsky’s arrest but by many who had previously been loyal to the regime. Mass protests developed, so the authorities changed their strategy, and this corresponds to the third stage in Forman’s film.

Putin started appealing to the silent majority, those people unable to form their own ideas about rights and freedoms, democracy or economic policies. The government and the propaganda machines began talking dismissively about the ne’er-do-wells in the capital with time to attend endless protest rallies. The Kremlin decided to look for support in the provinces, among workers in the mines and the big factories i.e. the least well educated and furthest removed from any independent sources of information. Pro-Putin demonstrations were organised with people being bussed in, who would have been very unlikely to attend events of this kind of their own accord.  A lowly manager from Nizhnii Tagil was suddenly appointed Presidential Envoy to the Urals, simply because he had expressed extremely hardline opinions about the Moscow opposition.

In a word, and to translate everything into the language of the film once more, one could say that the opposition, having secured the support of the thinking psychiatric patients, demanded radical change from the government, which appealed to the principles of democracy, proposing that the opinion of all patients, irrespective of their ability to think, be taken into consideration.

Shock treatment

We are currently moving from the third stage of communication between the authorities and the patients to the fourth. Realising that there is a danger of totally losing the support of the majority (which could be brought about by a serious economic crisis with a severe fall in living standards for large sections of the public), the Kremlin is preparing to use force against the leaders of the opposition. 

'Realising that there is a danger of totally losing the support of the majority (which could be brought about by a serious economic crisis with a severe fall in living standards for large sections of the public), the Kremlin is preparing to use force against the leaders of the opposition. ' 

It’s not yet a question of a Soviet-type crackdown, but more of the government’s readiness to use its own kind of ‘financial shock treatment.’ The new legislation is targeted in such a way that demonstration leaders can be fined large sums of money for any step out of line. Anyone who has his own business could lose it, even if this means ruination.

Today’s opposition leaders are neither ascetics or fanatics. They want to live in nice flats, drive their own cars, have good food and clothes, take foreign holidays and give their children a sound education. Financial shock treatment could be very painful for them.  What the Kremlin wants to do is deprive the protest movement of its leaders without creating new political prisoners, which are such a sensitive matter for Western public opinion.

About the author

Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies

Read On

The first 100 days of Putin’s presidency see a tightening of the screws, by Sean Roberts,
Finnish Institute of International Affairs, 09.08.2012

One Hundred Days of Putin, by Marc Bennets, RIA NOVOSTI AGENCY, 13.08.2012

More On

“Politically, the past 100 days have been marked by a clear shift to repressive policies,” said analyst Maria Lipman at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think-tank. “The list is pretty big and it’s getting bigger.”

“Putin’s third presidency has seen him rely more on repression than the manipulative methods that he used to establish control in his first two terms of office,” she added. “This is probably the most graphic example of how Putin’s third term is different from his previous presidencies.”

Masha Lipman, Carnegie Moscow Center commenting for RIA NOVOSTI AGENCY


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.