What Putin Is Not

So Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidential election again, which probably didn’t surprise many. The BBC reports the reaction from world leaders is muted, presumably in comparison to the felching that Macron received. This line amused me:

But European observers said that while the poll was conducted efficiently there was a lack of genuine choice.

There are quite a few in the US and UK who know exactly how they feel. Anyway, Putin’s campaign gave an opportunity to those who don’t know much about contemporary Russia to give us their thoughts. Now this tweet is pretty daft:

But the responses aren’t a whole lot better either:

Whatever one thinks of Putin, he is not a ruthless dictator presiding over a regime which tolerates no dissent whatsoever. For example, here’s an article in The Moscow Times, and English language paper, which says:

Women were dealt a heavy blow at the start of 2017 when President Vladimir Putin decriminalized domestic violence, downgrading it to an administrative offense. “We lost that fight,” says Kira Solovyova, one of the founders of the ONA (She) feminist association.

Some within the feminist community have called for a boycott of the elections while others argue that a female candidate is their best hope for improving conditions for women in Russia.

“We have to choose the least of all evils,” Timofeyeva says. Alena Popova, a gender equality advocate, stresses the need for unity. “We have to strategize, to use all the doors we have to promote equality,” she told The Moscow Times.

This is not exactly scathing criticism but it’s hardly praise either, and would not have been tolerated by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or the Kims. There are also Russian language papers (I forget which ones) which are critical of Putin, and it’s worth mentioning that I wrote this blog from 2006 to 2010 while in Russia, and didn’t hold back from criticising Putin’s energy nationalism. I expect things have changed since then and the place has become more nationalistic and less tolerant of outside critics, but it’s still allowed. I follow at least one prominent freelance American journalist based in Moscow who often makes critical remarks about the government.

That’s not to say that Putin is a tolerant man – he isn’t – but he is not totalitarian as the commenters above suggest. If you are a threat to Putin or his circle, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, you will be crushed like a bug. If you’re a journalist exposing corruption and other malfeasance on the part of Russian government figures, you’re taking your life in your hands. If you are a politician who might lay a glove on Putin in a fair election – such as Boris Nemtsov or Alexei Navalny – you will wind up dead or in jail. But if you’re an ordinary Iosif and you express disapproval about Putin to another ordinary person – or even one who’s not – you’re not going to be arrested, tortured, jailed, and killed. Russia is a police state on some levels, but not in the context of suppressing political dissent among individual citizens.

Now obviously one has to be careful. You’d not want to be mouthing off about Putin if you held a government job, or were interacting with government officials or a bunch of young patriotic males. I am sure a certain candour is required if you want to succeed in a state-owned bank, for example. But this is hardly unique to Russia. How well do Republicans get on in American academia? How much tolerance would a British teacher be afforded if he confessed to voting Tory? Would anyone working for the US government agency on climate change have been able to openly criticise Obama?

So yes, going around Russia bad-mouthing Putin will likely land you in a spot of trouble, but it won’t be the police or FSB who take an interest. And with a bit of common sense and politeness, you’d find that criticising Putin is permitted in Russia. Unbeknown to western commentators, Russians are not a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs who have swallowed Putin’s nationalistic tub-thumping wholesale (although they did like the snaffling of Crimea). They know what Putin is like, and probably wouldn’t mind a change, but the question is “who and what”? Streetwise Professor gets to the nub of the issue here:

The fundamental problem isn’t Putin’s specific personality. It is that his personality and behavior are well-adapted to Russian political culture and its society. The issue isn’t Putin per se. It is Russia, and it is a problem that long preceded Putin and which will long outlast him.

There are some people out there who think if it weren’t for Putin, Russia would be like Brooklyn. Russians, who have skin in the game, are a little less certain. Most Russians I know acknowledge that things could be better, but they also know things could be much worse. For the most part, educated Russians between 20 and 50 have opportunities their parents could only have dreamed of, as well as double glazing, reliable electricity, a car that functions, and foreign holidays. These same people remember the carnage of the post-Soviet era as well as the currency crisis in 1998. For the large part, Russians trust that Putin will not bring about a catastrophe of those proportions, and are justifiably concerned that whatever follows him might. They simply don’t think rolling the dice to improve things a bit is worth the risk of things getting an awful lot worse. I spoke to two highly-educated, westernised Russians on this very point recently, and both agreed that they’ve seen enough chaos in their lifetimes, thanks very much. It’s easy to preach revolution when you’ve never had to live through one yourself.

Like many long-serving authoritarians, Putin has done an excellent job of convincing Russians that he is a safe pair of hands and without him the country will fall into ruin. He has got away with it because, in part, it is true – and would be for any Russian leader. Russians don’t deal with change very well, particularly at the top of their government. That’s not to say I agree with what Putin is doing, and I have said several times that he should have departed in 2008 when his second term was up. But it is important to understand why he is still president after 18 years, and that any replacement might be worse or dead within a week. It’s not Putin that needs to change, it’s Russia. Hyperbolic comments from western journalists and policymakers isn’t going to make that any easier.

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30 thoughts on “What Putin Is Not

  1. It’s odd, but even a few years back the Western media wasn’t that bothered by Putin. Certainly the Progressives weren’t. This all seemed to change after Putin made some remarks about gay people, Elton John demanded an audience and since then Progressives have been channelling Cato’s views on Carthage.

  2. This all seemed to change after Putin made some remarks about gay people

    Also, he upset the NeoCons by getting involved in Syria. Why anyone who wasn’t Syrian should care that the Russians are involved in Syria I cannot fathom, but the NeoCons seem to think only Americans are allowed to bomb, invade, wreck, and field large standing armies in the Middle East. Even the “protect Israel” angle doesn’t work on this one: Russia has no beef with Israel (beyond soundbites), and aren’t about to invade it from Syria.

  3. All these non Russian commentators criticizing Putin and Russia, whilst the US Euro alliance split widens and splits within the Euro program widen. He must be having a right old snigger to himself.

  4. “upset the NeoCons by getting involved in Syria.”

    They fucking hate what Russia has achieved in Syria, there is some major agitation going on there right now, I don’t think the yanks want to leave. Nikki is praying for a Skripal type incident there.

    On a side note did anyone see the recent videos of Assad driving around Damascus and going to Ghouta in a Honda Accord? The people like Assad, they always have and looks like they always will. I wish the yanks and their lackeys would fuck right off out of there, can’t see it happening though.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0OeM0tFmFs

  5. Great points well made, Tim.

    It’s increasingly obvious that demanding or expecting countries with no previous history (more than a few decades) or culture of democracy, freedom of speech and the rights of the individual as being paramount and above those of the state is always going to end in frustration.

    Look at what happens in the Arab nations; they can hold free and fair elections in a country where everyone is aligned by religious sect, tribe and family with every other consideration being irrelevant in its importance but the result looks very unlike a good-natured parliamentary debate.

    There’s only one functioning democracy in that region, by the way, and it has a demographic very different to the rest.

    One suspects the people in the UK and USA most annoyed by Putin’s grasp on power are not that bothered about Magna Carta, Common Law, much of the USA Constitution and would prefer it if Trump was impeached for any reason possible and Brexit didn’t happen.

  6. The people like Assad, they always have and looks like they always will.

    They liked his dad, not so sure about him. I work with a Syrian, he says opinion is deeply divided.

  7. It’s not Putin that needs to change, it’s Russia.

    So how does Russia need to change?

  8. So how does Russia need to change?

    It’s an impossible ask, but Russians need to stop rewarding thuggery. If a known gangster with a penchant for beating up people and extorting money from small businesses opens up a new nightclub or shopping mall, Russians ought to boycott it rather than flock to it in excited droves. But I can understand why they do it.

  9. @TimN

    “Even the “protect Israel” angle doesn’t work on this one: Russia has no beef with Israel (beyond soundbites), and aren’t about to invade it from Syria.”

    The problem is not that Russian forces in Syria might be used to attack Israel. It’s that a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria would significantly change the status quo, effectively opens a new front for them against Israel, and allows an overland supply route to their proxies in Lebanon. From an Israeli point of view, Russia is backing a dangerous horse, and Russia’s actions make that horse much more likely to win, while constraining (eg by providing anti-air cover) Israel’s options to respond.

  10. One of the problems with Russia and its people is that the 80 year rule of Communism destroyed what little freedom of thought and independence of action the people had. 80 years of micromanagement, no freedom of action, thought or of speech and a poverty level barely above starvation level for most of that time has left a baleful legacy.

    Simply saying “OK, now you are free, build a capitalist, western type society” will not work. The skills, habits and thought processes will have to be relearned. They are learning and starting to get there but there is still a lot of inertia, deadwood and structures in place that are needed to run the country during the transition period.

    How do you apply business borrowing and financing when there has been nothing like it in the country, you have no experience of it and would not understand a modern banking system. More importantly, if you have been taught through bitter experience that you do NOT trust the government or banks, then that is a big hurdle to overcome.

    Russia needs a strong man to hold it together for a while until such things become normal and part of “the way we do things” culture and thinking. It will take a while.

    Would I want to live in Russia right now? No, but if I was, as Tim said, a Russian over age 50 that has first hand knowledge of the Communist system, it would be a “yes please with a cherry on the top”.

  11. MBE,

    Yes, I can see the thought process. But Israel hasn’t explicitly said they don’t like Russia because they will guarantee Assad stays in power, thus handing Syria to Iran who will then attack Israel so I don’t see why NeoCons should be making the case for them. Israel worries about Iran, and worries about Iran in Syria, but I expect they are aware that Russia has no great love for Iran and isn’t about to assist them in attacking Israel. If anything, Russia (along with Turkey) will ensure Syria doesn’t turn into an Iranian proxy.

  12. One of the problems with Russia and its people is that the 80 year rule of Communism destroyed what little freedom of thought and independence of action the people had. 80 years of micromanagement, no freedom of action, thought or of speech and a poverty level barely above starvation level for most of that time has left a baleful legacy.

    Yet the Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Poles, and others have made a better fist of it (on most measures). They certainly didn’t resort to the levels of violence, gangsterism, and thuggishness that we saw (and still see) in Russia.

  13. >One of the problems with Russia and its people is that the 80 year rule of Communism destroyed what little freedom of thought and independence of action the people had. 80 years of micromanagement, no freedom of action, thought or of speech and a poverty level barely above starvation level for most of that time has left a baleful legacy.

    It also didn’t help that Lenin and Stalin killed most of the people with any kind of independence of mind and spirit.

  14. The problem with Syria is that Muhammad said “If anyone changes his religion kill him”, this has made coexistence between different Muslim sects rather difficult for the last 1400 years.

  15. “They liked his dad, not so sure about him. I work with a Syrian, he says opinion is deeply divided.”

    I have worked with many pro and anti Assad Syrians and relocated a Christian one and his family to Sydney, he lost all his assets, everything. I also have had conversations with Qatari’s that hate him and that have backed the foreign mercenaries. Admittedly they have changed their tune slightly since the Saudi embargo.

    My view is that he has always had majority support. But either way I bet you London to a brick none of the Syrians other than hard core Sunnis wanted to be ruled by Takafari head choppers. What reasonable person would.

    Assad a doctor and an accidental democratically elected leader may well have done some bad things, but I don’t think he was the evil tyrant that the west made him out to be and best that the west and the Saudis just fuck off and leave it to the Syrians to rebuild and sort out.

  16. My view is that he has always had majority support. But either way I bet you London to a brick none of the Syrians other than hard core Sunnis wanted to be ruled by Takafari head choppers. What reasonable person would.

    Agreed.

  17. My first hard lesson about Russia and the Putin power vertical came from a colleague while I lived there. It’s a winner take all society and, after a painful period in the nineties and a little beyond, everyone learned who they’re supposed to pay. If a new political party (gang) takes power, then the whole hierarchy needs to be rebuilt with the new crony network. Suddenly, it becomes confusing as to who you’re supposed to pay and that can be deadly. People don’t want to see their local restaurant owner dead in the street because he didn’t want to give up his business or pay a higher fee. Extrapolate that up higher in the chain and you get chaos and instability. Nobody wants that and so nobody rocks the boat. When Medvedev came in, the party boss was still there to keep the hierarchy together.

    Once Putin is gone, it will be very interesting to see what happens. They will likely try to do a very warm handoff to keep things intact. You will never have the most honorable people running the show, but it will be a predictable one. This was a very sobering explanation of it all and it has always colored how I view Putin and Russia.

  18. Putin’s paternalism is leaving the people few opportunities for growing up politically. Putin’s regime has consolidated power at the expense of regional and local self-government. The only genuine election I’ve witnessed in the past decade was last year’s municipal election, similar to local elections in the UK. Also, the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 was somewhat competitive. But that’s about it.

  19. “Israel worries about Iran, and worries about Iran in Syria, but I expect they are aware that Russia has no great love for Iran and isn’t about to assist them in attacking Israel. If anything, Russia (along with Turkey) will ensure Syria doesn’t turn into an Iranian proxy.”

    Syria is already an Iranian proxy. Assad is dependent on Iranian money and Hizbullah troops. Both Hizbullah and Iran expect their influence to be commensurate with their sacrifice. On the other hand, Syria is now ever more firmly a Russian client state.

    Israel’s nightmare scenario runs somewhat on these lines:

    A weakened Syria lets Hizbullah and Iran do whatever they want against Israel. When Israel retaliates, Assad goes running to Russia for help. At some point Putin decides that enough is enough – perhaps he’s looking for an excuse to humiliate the U.S. by stomping on an ally – and decides to teach Israel a painful lesson. Hizbullah and Iran, of course, anticipate such a possibility, and grow ever more bolder under the perceived Russian umbrella.

    This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. You could argue that a similar scenario was played out in Lebanon in 1982, with the roles switched around. Syria was intervening in Lebanon since 1975. At some point the Maronite Christians in the south started receiving training and armaments from Israel, to defend themselves against the Muslims. No cause for concern for Syria, no reason to think it would embroil Syria in a conflict with Israel, right? Well, fast forward to 1982, when Israel decided to strike at the PLO in Lebanon, under the expectation that the Maronites would be able to restabilize Lebanon in the aftermath. That war also resulted in a few clashes between the IDF and the Syrian army, with considerable losses.

    It’s not an exact parallel, but my point is this: client agents can sometimes embroil their patrons in their own conflicts. And a client with a powerful new patron is often emboldened, trusting in the deterrent effect of his patron. Thus a period of instability often ensues, until a new equilibrium is reached.

  20. Putin’s paternalism is leaving the people few opportunities for growing up politically.

    Yup. Sticking with Putin may bring short term stability, but it will leave a colossal void when he goes. As you say, there is no opportunity for anyone to learn the ropes in the lower ranks of government.

    Saying that, there are plenty of lower ranks of government to learn on in the US and UK and look at the leadership options on offer!

  21. “If a known gangster with a penchant for beating up people and extorting money from small businesses opens up a new nightclub or shopping mall, Russians ought to boycott it rather than flock to it”

    Similarly, if said gangster opens up a corporation selling oil and gas, the Russians ought to boycott it … oh, wait, seems like anything the Russians decide to do with a nightclub won’t make much of a difference for that gangster, will it?

  22. @Tim Newman on March 20, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Tim,

    There are a number of factors that distinguish Russia/USSR from the Baltic countries and the Communist countries seized after WW2.

    1) The rulers of the newly created USSR were deliberately selected from the lowest of the low peasants and elevated to high rank. They had come from nothing and were put into positions of power and wealth where they liquidated the class enemies (intellectuals, the bourgeois, the wealthy etc.). They owed everything to the Communist party and could and would do anything to maintain their position. The alternative was a bullet through the back of the neck in the basement of the Lubyanka. Not a good way to select your rulers. The thuggish behaviour became the de facto norm.

    2) The decapitation of the country by killing the most intelligent was deliberate and adherence to the party line substituted for skill and talent. They did the same with the Army (the Tukhachevsky affair) pre WW2 and did the same to Poland (the Katyn forest massacre which included leading intellectuals, University professors etc.).

    3) With the threat of the Gulag and/or summary execution, the communists were not challenged and this became the norm. Thugs promoted and recruited from their “class” and consolidated their power.

    When the regime collapsed, I would repeat my assertion that there were no natural leaders or anyone with the skills that were eliminated by the Soviet system that could run a modern economy and democratic system. The thugs that shaped and directed the system brutalised the whole country and imbued an “every man for himself” attitude, together with the rewards for denouncing your fellow citizens made for a population unwilling to trust anyone else or help them. This, as I said, went on for 80 years so the older people that did survive the purges, progroms and random slaughter were dead and did not train or discuss with the younger people any other way of behaviour. Far too dangerous and a one way ticket to Siberia was the most likely result of any perceived dissent.

    4) Although the Soviets tried the same tricks in the Baltic states, Poland etc. these countries only had 50 years of communist control. Being invaded by the Germans had prepared them to resist covertly and they set up clandestine organisations to distribute literature leaflets etc, The Soviets were more of the same. Therefore the knowledge, skills and more importantly, the intellectuals (although they were persecuted, dismissed form their jobs and made to work menial jobs) were not eliminated. When the countries became free again, there was still a relatively sound foundation to build upon.

    Oddly enough, I recall Fitzroy Maclean in his book Eastern Approaches commenting that pre revolution Muscovites were polite and well behaved (similar to the UK in not barging onto trains for example) but after the revolution, the “every man was equal so why should I get out of your way” attitude quickly took over with a corresponding deterioration in the rest of civil society.

    Just my 2c worth …

  23. One of the problems with Russia and its people is that the 80 year rule of Communism destroyed what little freedom of thought and independence of action the people had. 80 years of micromanagement, no freedom of action, thought or of speech and a poverty level barely above starvation level for most of that time has left a baleful legacy.

    Yet the Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Poles, and others have made a better fist of it (on most measures). They certainly didn’t resort to the levels of violence, gangsterism, and thuggishness that we saw (and still see) in Russia.

    There are two major differences.

    The first is that Communism came to these states after the Second World War (25 years later than Russia). By the time of independence there were memories of how free markets worked, and what the rule of law meant. And the hatred of Soviet rule meant that adopting the opposite to Soviet economics, laws etc was much much easier. And the Soviets couldn’t do the worst of Stalinism, the massive purges (Great Terror, read Conquest for a good intro) and the horrors of collectivisation, which destroyed any independent thought, and made gangster corruption the modus operandi of the ruling clique.
    The second is that these states were essentially western. Poland was a Western state, with a Western form of Christianity, it had representative institutions – Sejm, elective kingship – Lithuania was for long part of Poland, Latvia and Estonia were dominated by a Baltic German ruling class, and looked West, not East. Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech lands (more familiar to me as the Kingdom of Bohemia, which supplied a dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors) were Western states, which saw themselves part of a Christian Europe that was Western oriented. It was the states in Europe that suffered Ottoman rule, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania and, I’m afraid, maybe Greece that seem to have found it harder to embed Western norms. But the big thing was that Russia had been an autocracy which then underwent the horrors and moral degradation of Bolshevik Communism. In 1990 there were no memories that reached back to a pre Bolshevik time, and even if there were, Russian autocracy was no civic society model for anyone.

  24. Phil B, Tolkien,

    Thanks for your entries on this. Both support my point that Russia’s ills cannot be blamed solely on communism (more like a combination of communism and other factors).

  25. @Tim Newman

    Did you ever read “A People’s Tragedy” by Orlando Figes? (There may well be other excellent books available on Russia in the decades running up to 1917 but I’m afraid this is the only one I’ve read…)

    The utter state of the country even before the Bolsheviks seems to me to explain a lot.

    @tolkein

    Institutional memory is very definitely A Thing. Though Spain has been very clearly “Western” since they kicked the Arabs out – and was within the Western world before they arrived – and yet I’m not sure Spain ever really has sorted the whole “Western democracy” thing out, even in their current iteration of it. In fact if you contrast Spanish ex-colonies with British ones, there’s a marked difference in how well democracy has taken root within the Spanish-influenced cultural sphere. So on that basis I think East-vs-West might be too broad brush-strokes, though there’s definitely something in it.

  26. Shortly after Churchill and Brunel finished 1-2 in the BBC’s quest to identify the Greatest Britons, I asked a Russian who would win such a contest in her country.
    “No question, first Peter the Great, second Catherine, it wouldn’t even be close”, was her reply.
    We’re quite lucky that the West is one of the few cultures that likes weak leaders but strong institutions. Most of the rest of the world prefers a straight-up strong leader.

  27. Did you ever read “A People’s Tragedy” by Orlando Figes?

    No, I didn’t. I almost bought Natasha’s Dance but around the same time there was some controversy where (IIRC) someone suggested his work was not as accurate as people had assumed. Then there was this, and I kind of avoided him after that (it might have been the same controversy).

    I have read some other good stuff on the period, though. This was particularly good.

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