The Sting in the Tail of Putin’s Ideology.
A deep irony underpins Putin’s messaging, one that is entirely lost on the Russian people…
In Russia, nothing is more dangerous than the appearance of weakness.
Peter Stolypin, Third Prime Minister of Russia; assassinated in 1911.
In the early months of 2000, Secretary of State, the late Madeleine Albright became the first senior U.S. official to meet the then, newly appointed and largely unknown, acting President of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Reminiscing about this meeting in her last piece for the NYT, she says that other than his KGB background, the Clinton administration knew very little about Putin, and Albright said the meeting “would help (her) take the measure of the man and assess what his sudden elevation might mean for U.S.-Russia relations.”
Putin’s rise to power in Russia had occurred largely in a vacuum as far as the West was concerned. He was the nowhere man; a one time Deputy to St. Petersburg’s liberally minded, Western-oriented mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. An ex-KGB man with a mostly unimpressive record who had somehow slipped past all the wannabe’s to become Yeltsin’s anointed successor.
But what sort of man was he?
Albright referred back to her personal notes made during the return flight to DC. Putin, she wrote, was “small and pale, so cold as to be almost reptilian. He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse,” and then with prescient wisdom she recorded, “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
Putin was indeed a man on a mission, but the nature of that mission was a closely guarded secret. Having made all right overtures to secure his meteoric rise to power, Yeltsin, like many of those in the higher echelons of Russian politics assumed he would continue with market orientated reforms that Yeltsin himself, had begun.
But right from the start the signs were there that Putin was not that man. The initial reticence that many had seen in Putin to take on the leaders mantle had them thinking that he would be a one term man — a stop gap until someone more ‘suitable’ could be found.
But Putin, with his siloviki — his Russian hardmen — behind him, ex-KGB men all, tempered in the firey post-Cold War atmosphere of St. Petersburg where they worked as a team securing complete control of Russia’s second city, honing ruthless skills and tactics, taking bribes, using fear, corruption and coercion as tools with which to bring the port, local businesses, the media and all trade into their circle of influence, all while talking the talk and walking the walking the walk of democratic improvements and market reforms (1).
These skills they then took to Moscow and to the Kremlin, with Putin as the softly spoken, almost shy assassin at their head, the siloviki began their drive to turn back Yeltsin’s market reforms and to bring the 90’s era super-rich oligarchs to heel. Reading like a fast-paced spy thriller, Catherine Belton, in Putin’s People (1) brilliantly sums up this period in his life.
Putin kept up the charade, paying lip service to Russia’s market driven, democratic future even as he began to shore up the media, taking control of NTV, now the state TV station, and shortly afterwards grabbing back control of Yukos oil, owned at the time by Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, by slamming him into Moscow’s most notorious jail, the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina, on charges of corruption and tax avoidance.
And throughout Putin’s first term, the second Chechnyan War was providing a testing ground for the scorched earth military strategies that would later be perfected in Syria, and now practiced full throttle in Ukraine.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. A Chechnyan raid on a Moscow theatre in 2002 ended in a calamity. Russian security services completely botched the take-down and ended up killing at least 115 Muscovites.
At such times, Putin scurried away, hid in the shadows, perhaps unsure of what to do, or perhaps in callous disregard. No one knew for sure.
But he survived, and now more than 20 years later his grip on power remains undimmed, and perhaps even tightened of late with the crackdowns in the wake of his illegal invasion of Ukraine.
The question is, does he care about all the death and mayhem he is reaping, or is it all part of the master plan?
To answer that, we need to look inside Putin’s head…
In Putin’s head…
Trying to understand Vladimir Putin is like trying to balance a crate of oranges on top of an inflated balloon. It just doesn’t compute and just the thought of trying to engineer such an outcome is mind-boggling, and in some sense, just plain ridiculous. There isn’t any way to comprehend it; Putin’s actions, his logic, his words, his approach, just don’t fit together! It is all counter-productive and illogical.
Only it isn’t!
Not for him at least.
Speaking in 2011 to then V.P. Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin said, “You look at us and you see our skin and then assume we think like you. But we don’t.”
Perhaps the truth in those words has only become apparent to many of us in the last few weeks. I doubt much thought was given over to general analysis of Vladimir Putin’s mindset prior to his invasion of Ukraine, but now what goes on in that devious, cold, calculating head is a major topic of discussion.
But are we any closer to understanding the man or his reasoning behind this wretched, unnecessary war?
Since the end of the Cold War the Western world has been gripped by the politics of inevitability, which is basically the ‘idea that there are no ideas,’ (2), that there is no alternative ending, an idea perhaps summed up in Fukuyama’s End of History.
The end point of a capitalist driven inevitability is rampant inequality that undermines the potential for progress, and as social mobility ceases, inevitability gives way to eternity, and democracy gives way to oligarchy.
Tim Snyder leads us through the process to eternity in his hugely relevant book, The Road to Unfreedom (2). He paints the picture; “An oligarch spinning a tale of an innocent past, perhaps with the help of fascist ideas, offers fake protection to people with real pain. Faith that technology serves freedom opens the way to his spectacle. As distraction replaces concentration, the future dissolves in the frustrations of the present, and eternity becomes daily life.”
The oligarch then moves into politics, governing by invoking myths and by manufacturing crises.
Putin, as chief oligarch in this tale, chose the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, as his guide in eternity.
Ilyin, a native Russian in self-imposed exile, came to prominence in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s, the core principles of his thinking celebrated the power of will and violence over reason and law; he suggested the rise of a charismatic leader with a mystical connection to his people, and characterised globalisation as a global conspiracy and not as a set of problems.
Revised for today’s world, full of economic inequality, Ilyin’s ideas serve as the politics of eternity, aided and abetted by fascist ideals that close down public discourse, ramp up political fiction and untruths, leading inevitably away from voting and democracy, away from the rule of law, towards personalist regimes.
Putin began quoting Ilyin in speeches in the early 2010’s, and since then his philosophy has entered mainstream Russian culture, becoming part of the political and educational framework of the nation.
Eschewing individualism, succession, integration, novelty, truth and equality, Ilyin said that ethics were irrelevant, as was caring or worrying about other people. He said that ‘all that matters is God, and what matters with God is that he left behind a damaged world, and the only way to repair the damaged world was to have a certain kind of Russia, and the right kind of Russia has no fragmentation, no differing opinions, no voting, no true democracy, it has only the right kind of leader who makes clear decisions and policies that will reunite and repair the broken world.’ (3)
And Putin sees himself as this visionary leader, and views the future of Russia by looking back through history, as he sees it, as a way of reuniting his world, the Slavic world of “Russkiy mir” or “Russian world” that encompasses Russia, Belarus and, most pertinently, Ukraine.
There has been much focus on Putin’s rambling, personal take on Russian-Ukrainian history from an essay he wrote and subsequently published on the Kremlin website called, ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ in which he rewrites the historical facts to suit a latent propaganda narrative in a vain attempt to provide some historical and cultural justification for why Russia and Ukraine should be conjoined.
But the essay reads like a lop-sided High School history project, with many salient facts just dismissed because they don’t fit Putin’s vision of Russian history. As Tim Snyder points out in a recent podcast (3) ‘(Putin) sees the past in terms of a lost Russo-Ukrainian unity that never existed.’
Snyder explains that the underlying message, writ large throughout the incoherently constructed essay is that ‘Ukrainians want to be Russian, but they just don’t know it. And if you strip away the Ukrainian elites and the contaminating Western influences, they will begin to see the truth.’
This Tim says, is a ‘totalitarian political reality,’ where the facts are destroyed in favour of the vision of political reality that he (Putin) says it should be.
Putin’s politics of eternity, by engaging wholeheartedly with fascism, is rapidly becoming a reality in Russia. The democracy is a faux democracy; there is little in the way of differing opinions, and those that have them are quickly swallowed up, neutralised or killed by the state, the unifying message of Russkiy mir has been taken on board by the vast majority of the population, who worship Putin as the right kind of leader to bring about the myth of reunification.
What Ilyin doesn’t explain however, is how, once eternity is reached, a nation returns back from the vacuum of inevitability to embrace the real world once again.
Inside the Russian psyche…a Putin spin-off?
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Reputedly said by Mark Twain.
Margaret MacMillan says that World Wars and Great Depressions do not appear out of the clear blue sky; they happen because “previous restraints on bad behaviour have been weakened.”
Not many of us these days would say Russia is a global super-power; a mid-sized power possibly, a small power probably not. The point is that even a mid-sized power with a less than mid-sized economy can cause super-power sized problems if they throw what weight they have about in a maximal fashion.
As we have just discussed Putin doesn’t think like us in the West. He probably doesn’t care about Russia’s global reputation, though he might gripe about how we in the West might ‘abuse’ Russia, he only really cares about how we see him, and the legacy that he leaves behind.
He probably doesn’t care that his people might suffer economically either by sanctions or by a conflict induced economic depression; he has 10’s, maybe even 100’s of billions of dollars stashed away. The man in the street is useful to him only in as far as he does what he’s told, says what he’s told to say and believes what Putin tells him to believe. His hunger, his welfare. his worries are not Putin’s problems.
In fact, the unified message is that the hunger, the pain the average Russian feels on a daily basis is not Putin’s fault; it is the evil, Russophobic West that is to blame, and following this logic found in the unifying message, Putin is the only man to lead the Russian people through the pain to the promised land of reunification.
He doesn’t care that his soldiers commit atrocities, because for him this is all part of his drive for dominance, all part of his legacy which is, most likely, his singular driving ambition. He wants to be seen as the man who restored Russia’s greatness; as the man who brought the West to its knees. If Ukrainians, or even other Russians have to suffer dreadful, dehumanising, degrading and deplorable deaths for that reality to be brought about, then so be it.
What the weak West sees as a violation of human rights Putin sees as a necessary consequence to bring about his desired endpoint, his political eternity.
And the transmission of his urgent desires to the Russian people has been almost complete. Using extended propaganda campaigns broadcast through a media that was corralled and schooled in fascist Putinism almost from the first (4), he now has a population that largely parrots his rhetoric ad libitum for him.
He has convinced them that their suffering is a necessary price to pay for him to achieve his aims.
His cult of personality is so strongly interwoven with the future of Russia that the moment Putin says anything it becomes a fact, an undeniable truth, even if the actual truth of what he’s saying is precisely the opposite of what he preaches.
They believe, just because he tells them so, that Ukrainians are Nazis, despite all evidence to the contrary; that his special military operation is a kindness, and that the Ukrainian people need to suffer degradation, death and generations of torment until they begin to see that they are true Russians, as they were always destined to be.
And when the West, the true perpetrators of all this strife, accuse Russia of crimes, they just accuse back, but with bells on. They call for the UN Security Council to meet to denounce U.S.-Ukrainian chemical weapons factories. They shout about the inhuman Ukrainians and how they crucified Russian children in the Donbas, all without a shred of evidence.
They bomb hospitals full of pregnant women and children, then when accused they say it was a nest of Nazified vipers who deserved what they got.
And the people believe.
The public and the troops are told it is not just a military and political strategy undertaken in Ukraine, it is a political necessity, it is militarily expedient to kill and bomb extensively to save the lives of good Russians.
And it is all based on a tried and tested formula.
Chechnya — check.
Syria — check.
“Massive devastation and collateral fatalities among the civilian population are acceptable in order to limit one’s own casualties,” says Alexei Arbatov, a prominent Russian military strategist, and one time federal legislator, who wrote in a 2000 essay describing Moscow’s emerging doctrine during Russia’s second war in Chechnya.
Civilian deaths and wartime atrocities are nothing new, and let’s be clear, they are not limited to the Russian wars alone, and are not even killed in greater numbers in Russian led conflicts when compared to wars conducted by the U.S., for example.
Cities have been destroyed before in the name of war. The British flattened Dresden in the latter stages of WWII killing thousands of civilians. More recently the US have caused countless numbers of civilian deaths in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in the West such atrocities and crimes get an airing, they get discussed, they are acknowledged — see the Nuremberg Trials — even if there remains stiff resistance to prosecution and justice after the fact.
In Russia however, there is no acknowledgement whatsoever. There is complete and utter impunity; a total lack of accountability. There are no independent institutions to investigate war crimes or to hold anyone to account. In Russia it seems to be socially and culturally acceptable to cause civilian deaths in war, with few people on the street or in military fatigues having any moral compunction with the assessment that collective human rights are always subservient to state power.
That state violence is part and parcel of Russian life seems to be very much an integral component of the culture. “Either you are dominating or you are dominated,” says Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko, perhaps harking back to the quote at the top of this piece by Peter Stolyin; “Nothing in Russia is more dangerous than the appearance of weakness;” an adage that is perhaps no more true than if you’re a Russian soldier struggling to keep your head above water in a violent, oppressive military with no escape but death.
In the military this casual attitude to violence is a matter of basic survival. Severe hazing and top-down violence is a fact of day to day life for most conscripts. Violence and aggression are ingrained. Russian civil rights groups suggest that the culture of violence, coupled with a lack of independent oversight makes war crimes more likely, more acceptable, more commonplace.
Indeed, it is suggested that if there were an uprising in a Russian city that it would be put down with as much ruthlessness and ready violence regardless that those on the end would be other Russians. But in Ukraine the level of violence has been ratcheted up another notch.
Russian soldiers get a dose of propaganda 6 days a week as part of their training; 40 minutes of dehumanising video that portray Ukrainians as Nazis, and any assault on Ukraine as an extension of Stalin’s Great Patriotic War against the German Nazis in WWII. ‘Honour your ancestors sacrifices in WWII by continuing their work today’ is the message.
They are told ad infinitum that ordinary Ukrainians want to be part of Russia, and as such, any that take up arms are traitors to Russia, and as Putin has reiterated time and again, ‘treason is the gravest possible crime,’ deserving only of the gravest of punishments.
Thus orders come down from on high to slaughter the civilians, to kill the prisoners of war without mercy.
The Russian public too have been fed this message too in 24 hour state TV broadcasts that reinforce and embed the crimes of everyday Ukrainians deep into the Russian psyche. And so effective has this campaign been that tracked phone calls between mothers and their sons on the frontline have revealed a systematic, nationwide desire to commit atrocities.
Mothers are telling their sons to kill civilians, because they are Nazis who deserve nothing better. Wives are telling their husbands to rape Ukrainian women — “just be sure to wear protection when you’re doing it!”
The wholesale desire for violent depravity of those deemed less than human fits perfectly with Putin’s desire for an unfragmented Russia, all following a single unified message from God sent down via their messianic, inspirational leader.
“Kill the Nazis. Kill the Nazis.”
Without prompting, the Russian Orthodox Church takes up the messaging. They tell their congregations that Putin’s crusade is a righteous war; that to kill Ukrainians is only right and correct. To kill them becomes almost a Godly act; an act of supreme merciful sacrifice that needs to be undertaken. Russian soldiers are God’s soldiers no less.
The Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a long time supporter of Putin, swallows his unifying message whole, regurgitating it as a tirade against the corrupt West as personified by, of all things, the Gay Pride Parade.
“Today there is a test for the loyalty to this new world order, a kind of pass to that ‘happy’ world, the world of excess consumption, the world of false ‘freedom,’ ” he said. “Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrible — it is the gay pride parade.”
Accredited with propagating the “Russkiy mir” hypothesis that was so prevalent across the words of Putin’s essay, Kirill invoke’s Putin’s distorted vision of history, the myth that a true unified Russia is God’s will, and the “holy war” Russia is engaged in to bring Ukraine back into Russkiy mir is a necessary and violent step in Russia’s bid to “repel its enemies, both external and internal.”
Given all of this, is it any wonder that widespread, even systematic human rights violations and war crimes have taken place across Ukraine in the course of the last two months?
But the intense irony of Putin’s fascist message is lost in the rush of blood to the head. For the mothers inciting their sons to slaughter, for the wives inciting their husbands to pillage, for the Church inciting the faithful to violence, it is not the fascist ideology that counts, it is the terminology.
The very word Nazi brings with it evocations of past atrocities committed and past victories won.
The supreme irony is that Putin’s message, as framed in the teachings of the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, is lost on the Russian people who are consumed by the unified message and truth that Putin brings.
The unifying message is Russia is God’s country. Russians are God’s people. And Russians will always win out in the end because God is with them.
The Nazis, who are not Nazis, and only become Nazis because Putin says they are, must die for the world to be whole.
Tim Snyder says that we in the West are poorly equipped to understand Putin’s messaging and that is why it seems so counter-intuitive, and this is because of the politics of inevitability.
During the Cold War ideologies such as communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism, and the ideas behind them were everyday topics, but since the West, and in particular, the U.S., won the Cold War we have lost the ability to recognise and deal with these ideas simply because they have been defeated and hence have lost all relevance.
And that may true in the West…
…but not the East.
Thanks for reading.
- Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia & then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020. Chpt 1, 2.
- The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America; Timothy Snyder, 2018.
- The Ezra Klein Show, NYT Opinion podcast; March 15th 2022, Timothy Snyder on the Myths that Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans.
- Putin’s People, Ibid, Chpt 2.