Russia Chooses

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a friend, a European who has lived in Russia for most of his adult life.  We were discussing the current political environment in Russia, particularly in regards of the situation in Ukraine, and he made an interesting comment.  He said what was different about the current situation as opposed to any before, and what surprised him, was that Russians who he previously considered to be more liberal and skeptical of the government line had bought wholesale into the Kremlin narrative and had fallen into the same patriotic fervour as the rest of the population.

I found the comment interesting because I have observed much the same thing.  Of the Russians I know and read online, I have always been broadly aware of which were the skeptics who could generally be relied upon not to offer unquestioning support for Putin’s policies.  But since this Ukraine mess started, and Russia annexed the Crimea, it has been interesting to watch how the views have aligned.  I don’t know why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess it is because this is probably the first time when Russia has really come under serious criticism from the West: chucking Pussy Riot in jail rankled with some people, but no sanctions were applied.  As such, it could be that Russians feel the need to defend their homeland regardless of the actions they wittingly or unwittingly support whilst doing so.

Personally, I’m not bothered – it’s up to the Russians how they think – but I’m also not surprised.  For all the complaining from Russians about the Soviet Union when it existed, and then when it did not, they tended to overlook the fact that an awful lot of them supported it unquestioningly right up to the point when it came crashing down around their ears.  The Russians were not some oppressed minority forced to adopt a system and language not of their choosing under orders issued from a foreign capital, in a way the Lithuanians or Latvians were.  Russians bear a responsibility for their lot both during and after the Soviet Union which in my opinion they’ve never really owned up to.  When pressed, they speak of the Soviet leadership as some sort of “other”, an alien government, but where was this sentiment at the time?  Other than a handful of dissidents, everyone else fell meekly into line.  I’ve mentioned this on here before, but one of the things which shocked me most when I read about the Stalin purges was the willingness of one set of Russian civilians to unquestioningly massacre their friends and neighbours.  By the million.

Putin’s approval rating among Russians currently stands at 87%, and I am quite ready to believe that is accurate.  Now, as then, Russia has united in the face of perceived attempts by foreigners to destablise Russia.  And now, as then, Russia is also clamping down internally.  Alex K. has posted some good stuff on the suppression of seemingly any form of pro-Ukrainian sentiment, and witch-hunts seem to be growing apace:

A veteran Russian rock star has been accused of betraying his country after performing in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by the Ukrainian army.

A prominent MP and other Kremlin supporters say Andrei Makarevich, a critic of Russian policy on Ukraine, should lose his state honours.

United Russia party MP Yevgeny Fedorov denounced Makarevich over his 12 August concert for children from Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fedorov said he should be stripped of his state honours, including one “For Services to the Motherland”.

Now, as then, it appears that anyone who doesn’t support the government’s policies is seen as a traitor.  More so than at any time since the USSR the population has thrown itself behind the government – or more specifically, the person who leads the country – and is rooting out dissidents both real and imagined.

This will not end well.  I believe Russians are sleepwalking – nay, rushing headlong and willingly – into a state that, via a rapid shifting of the Overton window, they will come to not like living in very much.  I don’t know how many times I can repeat “You’ve been here before,” but it is worth noting that it wasn’t the Gulags and famines that disgusted the Soviet citizens of the 1980s, but decades of stagnating living standards, unmet potential, and a slow realisation that their leaders had been living it up at their expense from the outset.  Putin is not Stalin, and he is not going to unleash The Great Terror Round 2, but as I implied above, Stalin did not lose the USSR – Brezhnev and his successors did.

If this is the direction Russians want to take, then good luck to them.  They are an independent and proud people, who deserve to choose their own path.  But they should be wary all the same.  When the Soviet Union ended there was a surprising amount of sympathy for Russians and the hardships they faced, as they were considered (wrongly, in my opinion) as being a victim of a system over which they had no control.  For all the complaints modern Russians have over how they were treated by the West in the post-Soviet era, they actually came off very lightly.  Aid money poured in, overseas visas were issued by the tens of thousand, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation by both sides.  The worst that can be said is the Russians were given well-meaning economic advice but, as nobody realised the degree to which they were prepared to beat the shit out of each other and kill over money, the results were disastrous.  But note that Poland was given the same advice, and we don’t hear stories of mafia wars raging in Warsaw and Gdansk for a decade.  By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently.  History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.

14 thoughts on “Russia Chooses

  1. It’s shocking how many otherwise intelligent Russians have fallen for Putinism.

    The key thing to remember in this crisis is:
    *Ukraine is not a threat to Russia
    *but Ukraine is a threat to Putin and Putinism

    You’d think that so-called intellectuals would be able to see through that, but Putin has blinded them with a massive dose of nationalism, one of the most potent intoxicants known to man. Unfortunately, it also comes with a hell of a hangover. The Serbs loved Slobodan Milosevic to start with, but after a decade the romance ended in tears.

    I don’t buy Russian exceptionalism. Yes, it has some unique features, but so do most countries. In many ways, the Soviet Union was just another European empire. Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Belgium etc. – they all lost their empires, so did Russia (although it still clings on to the rump of one, e.g. Chechnya, Tatarstan, Kalmykia etc.). Boo hoo. All empires end and when they do, history shows it’s best to get it over with as soon as possible and not to cling to the past. Salazar tried to hang on to Portugal’s African colonies way beyond their sell-by-date at an immense cost in blood and treasure (apparently, Portugal was spending 40% of its budget on the military by the end). Likewise, France tried to avenge the humiliation of the German occupation in World War Two by trying to restore its empire in Vietnam and Algeria. Very bad idea, and one which almost led to a military dictatorship taking over in Paris. Fortunately, the French had De Gaulle, who might have been a hardcore nationalist but also had the intelligence to realise that Algeria was like a gangrenous limb and it would take the rest of France with it unless it was amputated. Putin is closer to the nutjobs of the OAS than De Gaulle. He can’t leave Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya etc. alone, whatever the cost.

    Russia is currently suffering from a heavy dose of imperial nostalgia. It’s not the Marxism-Leninism the Putinists are misty-eyed for but the domination of huge chunks of the globe. However, Russia’s superpower status is not coming back. If it had played its cards right, maybe Russia could have been a major post-imperial European power, like the UK, Germany or France. There’s just no way it could have competed with the USA or China (and I reckon China will inadvertently be a significant beneficiary of this crisis). Putin’s going to turn Russia into a bigger version of North Korea, only with hydrocarbons as well as nukes to use as blackmail weapons. People may fear North Korea, but they don’t respect it. In fact, it’s little more than a laughingstock, a belligerent basket-case. Welcome to Russia’s future.

  2. >But note that Poland was given the same advice, and we don’t
    >hear stories of mafia wars raging in Warsaw and Gdansk for a decade.

    There was less to steal in Poland, party due to the lack of those oil and gas reserves that Russia has. (Less charitably, what there was to steal had already been stolen by the Russians). Assigning blame was easy. (“We were occupied by the Soviets for 45 years”. Largely true). What was wanted was simple. (“We want to join the west”). So they had no choices but to build a diversified economy, or be dirt poor. I have little but admiration for what the Poles have achieved since 1989, but having fewer choices made choosing the right ones easier, I think.

  3. >Fortunately, the French had De Gaulle, who might have been a
    >hardcore nationalist but also had the intelligence to realise that
    >Algeria was like a gangrenous limb and it would take the rest of
    >France with it unless it was amputated.

    De Gaulle was not at heart a dictator, either. He left power peacefully when required to do so, on two occasions. The French were very lucky about that.

  4. There was less to steal in Poland, party due to the lack of those oil and gas reserves that Russia has.

    Okay, then they had pretty much the same options as Belorussia. I think the path they chose is more a reflection of the differences between Poles and Russians than the choices they had in front of them.

  5. De Gaulle was not at heart a dictator, either.

    Yes, he had a massive ego, but he was also a realist. He said somewhere that dictatorships always end badly so he was never tempted to become a French Franco.

  6. If this is the direction Russians want to take, then good luck to them. They are an independent and proud people, who deserve to choose their own path.

    With the proviso they don’t take anyone else down the same path with them, i.e. Ukrainians are also a proud and independent people, who deserve to choose their own path free from Putin and his stooges. I have no idea why the Italians kept voting for Berlusconi, but at least most of the damage Berlusconi caused stayed within Italy. This is not the case with Russia and Putin. Russia has a habit of exporting its problems (e.g. inflicting Communism on the other Soviet Republics and the Eastern Bloc). Ukrainians are currently paying a much higher price for the re-election of Putin than Russians themselves. I’ve met Ukrainians and liked them. Many are trying to get rid of the corruption in their system, even though they admit the process may take decades. But, unlike most Russians, at least they are making some effort. They shouldn’t have to suffer because of the megalomaniac fantasies of their neighbour to the east.

  7. “He said somewhere that dictatorships always end badly”: the key thing probably was that de Gaulle never added “but mine will be different”.

  8. Poland is very different from Russia. It’s ethnically and religiously homogeneous; there are no troublesome minorities or breakaway regions. Many Poles, even during Communism, managed to travel and work in the West, and brought money and skills home with them. Poland under Communism was a more open society than Russia. It’s next door to Germany, which brings economic benefits. There was a broad social consensus in favor of Westernizing as fast as possible. None of these were true of Russia.

    Yet even given all that, the transition in Poland was difficult. Unemployment was sky-high for a long time, crime and social dislocation went up. Nostalgia for Communism became a strong factor, as reflected in election results among other things. Even with Poland’s advantages, things have not been easy.

  9. @Estragon,

    Thanks for that, I admit I know very little about Poland (in comparison to Russia, at any rate). I think it supports my point which was that it was not the Western advice which plunged Russia into chaos following the breakup of the USSR, but the particular nature of Russia and its people.

  10. I have written a long and boring comment about the Russian Empire and who is to blame but then I thought it was irrelevant. What’s relevant, I think, is a sense of victimhood and impotence is fertile soil for nationalist ideologues. Ukrainians used to complain and blame Russia for all their failures – but they achieved something big in 2005-6 and managed a middle-class revolution in 2014. One can sense a “yes we can” or 1918 “Sinn Féin” spirit about that.

    Contrary to Russian propaganda, Ukraine’s new nationalism is moving away from the proto-fascist peasant idyll of the Galicians. It’s more civic-based and very much bilingual or even Russophone. It’s no longer surprising to meet Russian nationalists with Ukrainian names and Ukrainian nationalists with Russian names. Given that there’s much historical, cultural and linguistic similarity between huge swathes of Southern Russia and Ukraine, the divergence of political opinions between Russian and Ukrainian nationals is striking.

    Perhaps Putin’s propaganda is really working (as opposed to Brezhnev’s): I’ve recently met a relatively high-ranking manager with a Russian oil company who was born in Ukraine, has a typically Ukrainian name and a strong accent but has lived in Russia for years. He complained that his relatives in Ukraine were calling him a moskal’ and an aggressor. He seemed to disapprove of the Maidan revolution and broadly side with Putin.

    “Putin’s approval rating among Russians currently stands at 87%…” but in another poll, 28% of Russians have admitted they were afraid to give honest answers to pollsters. So yes, the shortie probably enjoys 60-65% support but you don’t need a majority for a revolution.

  11. “Stalin did not lose the USSR – Brezhnev and his successors did.”

    My understanding, based on Yegor Gaidar’s essay (The Soviet Collapse: Grain and Oil) is that the collectivization of agriculture was what did it for the Soviet Union: the oil postponed the collapse, but it was just a matter of time; and of course Stalin was responsible for the collectivization of agriculture.

  12. That’s certainly one difference between the USSR and Poland: the Communists in Poland never managed to collectivise agriculture. They may have intended to, but they stopped when it looked too politically difficult. This is different from what happened earlier in the USSR, when mass murder and mass starvation were seen as acceptable ways of achieving this end.

    In China, having collectivised agriculture and thus caused the starvation of tens of millions of people, the communists in the 1970s and 1980s managed to de-collectivise agriculture. Everything China has achieved since is built on the back of that.

  13. “That’s certainly one difference between the USSR and Poland: the Communists in Poland never managed to collectivise agriculture.”

    A critically important difference. Also, the Polish Communists failed to bring down or even neutralize the church. It also helped that Communism lasted for about 40 years, not 70+ as in Russia.

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