Fear & Loathing in Russia.
How a distorted, repetitive past dictates the future in Russia, & how a reckoning with those distortions could change everything…
“Because Russia never had its own version of Nuremberg, this history was never officially corrected. Only a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, public opinion turned nostalgic for Stalinism. Whereas in Germany it was unthinkable after World War II to declare a longing for the days of Hitler, in post-Soviet Russia, parties that explicitly invoked Stalin could still garner millions of votes. The Russian people remained trapped in a fake reality because they continued to believe in a fake history.”
Natan Sharansky, WAPO Op-Ed, May 9th 2022.
Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana observed that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In Russia today we are seeing the stark reality in the truth of those words. The parallels between Putin’s Russia and the past regimes of the Soviet dictators, and in particular Stalin, are becoming more evident.
We have seen recently in the Philippines, with the election of Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos Jr., authoritarian nostalgia is easy to cultivate if you don’t give the people the all the facts.
Bong Bong bang banged his social media drum and whitewashed his fathers horrific legacy and his mother’s obsession with bling bling, turning the bad old days of mass looting, martial law, the suspension of due process, extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, the almost universal assassination or incarceration of political opponents and critics, and remade the facts to read as the good old days of plenty.
Result: Hello Presidency! Bing Bong!
Were the people in possession of the true facts, such ‘democratic’ miscarriages could not take place…surely.
And as Natan Sharansky, a native Ukrainian and long time Soviet prisoner, says (in the quote above) the Russian people remain caught in a similar cycle of ignorance, not of their own making. but one cultivated by, what he calls, ‘a warped version of Russian history’ that is taught in schools and colleges, one that, much like Bong Bong’s re-constituted Filipino history, whitewashed the Soviet eras many crimes and atrocities and re-imagined Soviet expansionism as a non-Imperialistic historical necessity.
Indeed Putin’s now famous 2021 essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ is replete with misconstrued historical ‘facts’ such as calling Stalin’s collective starvation of c.4 million Ukrainians during the early 1930’s a ‘tragedy’ (p.12), rather than the deliberate castigation that it was.
The cover up began even as the last of those poor wretches lay dying (1).
Stalin’s rewrite has now been cemented as historical fact, one built upon by Putin’s revanchist, imperialist regime.
Indeed the parallels between Putin’s Russia and that of Stalin are so common they can even be spotted through the confusion of war. Before invading Poland (in agreement with Hitler’s Nazi regime — the vile Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that partitioned Poland as if it were a dead chicken) Stalin asserted that Poland was a non-state; a mere creation of the Versailles Treaty, and the Soviet Union had no choice but to invade to save the poor oppressed ethnic Ukrainians and Belorussians who so desperately wanted to join the USSR and had said so in an ‘election.’
And if that sounds all horribly familiar, it should!
Putin has repeatedly tried to nullify Ukraine as an independent state, insisting that it is little more than a part of a larger ‘Russkiy mir’ or Russian world, and a small part of that world at that. Indeed, the common name for Ukrainians in Russian is Malorussians, or Little Russians! I can only imagine the epithet is wholly descriptive for most Russians.
And before his invasion began he reasserted that imaginary status calling Ukraine a creation of the Soviet Union, and that the persecuted ethnic Russians needed saving, and that once the ‘takeover’ was complete elections would confirm the will of the people to rejoin the Russian fold.
‘What say you now Vlad, about the will of the people?’
Even Putin’s crackdown on public dissent, the gagging of all press freedoms, national and international, to report the war as a war and not as the Special Military Operation as Putin so quaintly calls it, the draconian jail terms for those who disobey, all have a distinct Soviet flavour to their mix.
And as Sharansky stresses such things are only possible because the “Soviet-era ideology of imperialism and contempt for human rights” persists among Russia’s “increasingly silenced majority.”
The birth of Soviet Nostalgia…
In September 1991 Vladimir Bukovsky, anti-communist and human rights activist, and long time Soviet dissident, was trying to persuade Boris Yelstin that there was a need for Russia to confront it’s Soviet era crimes, to have a Nuremberg style reckoning with a full public airing of all the facts, just as Germany had at the end of WWII, to cleanse the past and move into the future free of the dreadful encumbrances of the past.
It wasn’t, he said, about punishment. Bukovsky, recalling the incident years later said he told Yeltsin and his team, “that I’m (Bukovsky) not a bloodthirsty man. They (the perpetrators of the anti-Yelstin coup) need to be found guilty, then you can release them in two or three years, I don’t care. What’s needed is to condemn the system, to break it forever and start a process of penitence and decontamination in our society.”
But, he continued, “Yeltsin didn’t want that. And that, I believe, is the tragedy of Russia; everything went wrong for them precisely because they didn’t do that.”
And because that public airing never took place, the ideology persisted, became even more distorted over time, and just like the crimes of Marcos in the Philippines, the many crimes of Stalin and the Soviet regime were papered over, sanitised and brought out again refreshed, unblemished and publicly palatable once again.
And so Soviet nostalgia was born. Something that, as Sharansky notes with a wry irony, that would be unthinkable in Germany.
Disillusioned with Russia’s inability to deal with its own horrific legacy, Bukovsky renounced his Russian citizenship, only to have it returned to him by Yeltsin some time later.
And when Yeltsin finally fixed on his choice of successor, Bukovsky once again began warning the West what the little ex-KGB man would do with the outsized, executive powers still invested in the Russian leader. But those warnings, like those of many others, fell on deaf ears.
Bukovsky continued to fight for freedom in Russia until his death in 2018 and even stood, or at least tried to stand, against Medvedev in the Presidential elections in 2007, but was not, unsurprisingly, granted certification to do so. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a WAPO Op-Ed contributor and current dissident jailed by Putin last month, told at the time how many people had waited in the freezing cold to support Bukovsky, all to no avail.
As generations of Russians have suffered since 1917 under the oppressive jack boots of an uncaring, callous regime, and as the ignorance is perpetuated from one generation to the next, Russia becomes stuck in a endless cycle of repetition just as Santayana predicted.
One leader after another fights the same battles over and over, to secure and make absolute the power seized in the revolution, both within Russia, against the Russian people themselves, and without, against international enemies with imaginary, unspoken agendas.
“Now it lies in the nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders, as well as in the character of their ideology, that no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever.”
George Kennan, historian, writer of the above quote, and arguably the United States most famous diplomat, tried to explain Russian ‘aggressive intransigence’ with respect to the rest of the world, which has historically and invariably been viewed from within, as being hostile to Russia, using what he called a ‘Gibbonesque phrase.’ He said “there was a need in Russian society ‘to chastise the contumacy’ which they themselves had provoked.”
He was, writing in 1947, talking about Stalin’s Russia, but his analogy is timeless and fits just as well today with Putin’s own persecution complex vis-a-vis what he sees as NATO’s aggressive intent with respect to Russia.
“It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy,” Kennan wrote, “for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.”
And then we have Putin saying this at his Victory Day speech on May 9th earlier this month.
“NATO countries did not want to listen to us,” Putin said. “They were planning an invasion into our historic lands, including Crimea . . . The danger grew every day.”
Such is Putin’s thesis, and his frequent use of these fabrications in one form or another have, to all intents and purposes, become fact in Russia. But in seeing the features of NATO expansionism as indicative of a darker intent to invade Russia has, in it’s endless reiteration, effectively brought Putin’s own worst fears to life.
As of Wednesday 18th May both Finland and Sweden have submitted formal applications to join NATO citing Europe’s changed security environment following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Kennan also states that Russian ideology — he was specifically talking about Stalin’s flimsy version of communism, but again the words apply just as well to Putin’s version of kleptocratic capitalism — is to keep all but the inner circle as an ‘amorphous mass,’ devoid of any structure.
In Putin’s case the structure is provided by and limited to his siloviki, his ex-KGB men, his loyal lieutenants, kleptocratic billionaires all (2), while the hostile world outside — Kennan’s disobedient ‘contumacy’ — was to have no rigidity, no solid structure on which to base itself.
This applies both within Russian society itself, which is kept cowed and chastised through strict enforcement of a tightly controlled socio-political order, and without, where other nations were to be constantly destabilised, wrong-footed, and in the case of Ukraine, punished severely for their willful contempt of Russian authority in turning towards the West and away from Russia’s malign influence.
Whilst the minutiae of government might differ from one leader to the next, from one ‘sistema’ to the next, the infrastructure varies little.
The hows and wherefores of Putin’s sistema are to some extent shrouded in mystery, but it is certainly based around the solidity of his relationships with his siloviki who would appear to have become increasingly beholden to Putin’s patronage as his time in power has gone on. Anyone suspected or found to be over stepping whatever arbitrary lines Putin draws, will pay the price, sometimes with their lives.
Putin’s kleptocratic version of capitalism has more in common now with the Tsarist regimes of the old Russian aristocracy. As I have detailed in my last two posts here, I examined Putin’s base philosophy based on the works of White Russian emigre’s who fled the Red Bolshevik tide sweeping the nation during the Revolution, and how he then sold his distorted vision to the Russian people.
Many of these White Russians, often possessed of aristocratic lineages, may have lived relatively ‘normal’ lives in exile, but they all hankered after one thing; a return the glory days of an Imperialist Russia, and in Putin they saw a way to further their aims.
Catherine Belton (2) tells how many of the emigre’s retained high-level contacts within the KGB throughout the long years of Soviet Russia, including perhaps with Putin directly when he was stationed in Dresden as the Berlin wall came down. And in Putin’s words and actions they saw a like-mind, one who yearned for a return to Russian glory days. And they gave Putin their support as he built his new sistema based around his Kremlin loyalists, his siloviki.
And no matter how rich many of the siloviki became they were all fully aware that their riches, their elevated status, their continued success depended on one thing and one alone; and that was Putin’s favour.
On paper the companies they own are theirs, but in reality they are Russia’s, and since Russia is Putin…well, you do the math.
“When you are in strategic sectors you are part of the state. Oil, gas, telecoms— by definition these are strategic sectors. If you are in this sector, you serve. You are not independent from the state.” (2)
For them it wasn’t about the money, it was about their version of patriotism. They frowned on the ‘barbaric’ times of Yeltsin’s 90’s era ‘privatisations, calling it outright theft and corruption, all the while happily ignoring the ‘new’ corruption they committed on behalf of Putin’s sistema because they were patriots working on Russia’s behalf.
The end, in this case, more than justified the means.
“Money and power have gone together since the time of the ancient pharaohs. There has always been a higher sphere where money and power meet. The people in Russia are not stupid. Of course Putin has some personal interests. But the important thing is there is no other leader so popular. The normal population wants to have a fridge, a TV, a house, children, a car. For the rest more or less, you don’t care, as long as your material situation isn’t impacted.” (2)
Unnamed contact in Geneva.
But the invasion of Ukraine has turned the sistema on its head. Russian lives are being lost in the 1,000’s and people’s everyday lives are being impacted. Is this likely to change things going forward or is Russia destined to repeat the same ‘mistakes,’ if that’s what they are, even after Putin has gone?
The past reiterated is the future…until it isn’t.
For anyone interested in the workings of today’s Russia, of Putin’s Russia, then I can’t recommend enough Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People (2). She wrote this with admirable prescience:
None of this would have mattered if the KGB men who ran Russia and sought to use the country’s wealth to strengthen market and democratic institutions, rather than to preserve and project their own power. It wouldn’t have been an issue had the hardcore siloviki around Putin seen the West as a possible partner, and not increasingly as the enemy, intent on weakening Russia as a global power.
But they came from a world where the Cold War never really ended, where the only thing that mattered was restoring Russia’s geopolitical might…//…For Putin’s people the encroachment of the West, through NATO, ever closer to Russia’s borders was an existential threat, while the democracy movements that overturned pro-democracy movements in Ukraine and Georgia were seen as US-funded revolutions, not as an expression of the people’s free will.
There were no shortage of warnings about the direction in which Putin was taking Russia, but those in power in the West thought they knew better.
Had they listened would we now be where we are?
It is of course a moot point, whatever one might think. We cannot change what has already past. But we can change what comes next…
There are reports that perhaps Putin is sick, maybe even dying. These reports are speculative at best, but such an outcome may help explain away the desperate need to secure what Putin views as his legacy; the restoration of former imperial glories, even if the timing and the preparation wasn’t ideal.
Could it be that Putin’s miscalculations re-Ukraine and their willingness to fight are part of a crumbling intellect?
Or is he just guilty of overreach? Over confidence in his own abilities to steer events where and when he wishes to?
Edward Gibbon, a very wise man himself, said this:
“From enthusiasm to imposture the step is perilous and slippery; the demon of Socrates affords a memorable instance how a wise man may deceive himself, how a good man may deceive others, how the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.”
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Perhaps this self-deluded state is where Putin’s head lies…
The man widely thought to be Putin’s next in line is Nikolai Patrushev, a man known to be perhaps even more hawkish than Putin himself. But that doesn’t mean he will make the same mistakes.
But if, and when this war is done, and if and when Putin is gone, Russia cannot be left to double down on the hatred, to double down on the lies, on the secrets, on the twisted, distorted history. If Russia remains closed, oppressed and in the hands of men who put themselves before the people, who enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else all in the name of patriotism then this war will not be last one. We will be here again…
But if the West can reach out to the Russian people without recrimination, make it clear that we are there to help and not hinder or conquer, then maybe we can force a reckoning with their past that needs cleansing to allow the space for Russia to grow with confidence and not fear; to move ahead with the truth uppermost, and not with paranoia dictating future strategy, but with a system of openness that works for everyone, to bring peace and prosperity to Russia and to the region.
It’s an idealistic view, but not necessarily an unreachable one…
Thanks for reading.
- Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine; Anne Applebaum, 2017.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia & then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.