It is hard to believe, but the eight years are almost over. For ninety-some months, Vladimir Putin has led his country though gruesome displays of terrorism, border crises, a dysfunctional pension system, and a generally decaying infrastructure. He has done it all despite a hailstorm of international criticism from both those who oppose his blunt foreign policy and those who question his exercise of enormous executive authority. And on Sunday, Russian voters will go to the polls to confirm his chosen heir to the throne, Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev.
It is the latter group of detractors on which this article will focus. Without denying the extent of the repressive mechanisms in Russia today, I shall argue that Western opposition to Putin is largely rooted in certain expectations that many held in the years between 1991 and 2000, which were irrational even at the time. The political narrative of democratic progress that observers hoped to pin on Russia was more a function of Beltway aspiration than of Red Square reality. Putin should be evaluated not by the expectations of Americans, but by the widespread approval he enjoys in Russia. Putin’s high degree of public approval is not inexplicable, and neither is it case that eighty-odd percent of Russians are somehow duped and eagerly awaiting the light of further Western commentary. For reasons that are yet to be wholly explained, democracy (and only democracy as we practice it) is now widely considered to be the natural state of affairs, or in other words, one that is only absent under conditions of duress. Our trouble today in Iraq is slowly showing us that achieving democracy is a difficult process and one that must be willfully undertaken, but it is a lesson many think-tanks are slow to learn. Since Francis Fukuyama declared “Western liberal democracy” to be the end of history (a proto-Marxist conception of time if ever there was one), we have treated “free and fair” elections much as Aristotle treated gravity, as something so central to the human experience that any aberration is unnatural and, by definition, unjust. Journalists, highbrow and low-, tend to get stuck in this paradigm with astounding ease, and therefore consistently fail properly to analyze Russian social and political realities. There are even those local newspapers so besotted with themselves and their delusions of worldly acumen, that they print editorials entitled “Putin as Stalin”–as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review did in October of 2006. This really won’t do if we are to understand what Putin is up to, and why it is that he is so terribly popular.
Sophisticates who recognize the limited utility of the Putin-Stalin trope tend to prefer a more Hitler-esque narrative. Stanford’s Michael McFaul and his minions of American political scientists are particularly complicit in this Weimar Russia scheme that paints Putin as a despoiler of a society otherwise destined for democratic glory. Much of the academic literature written about Putin, usually under the dubious pretenses of so-called political science, focuses solely on his authoritarianism and treats it like bloodstain on a white silk handkerchief. In this school of rhetoric, which I shall call the Palo Alto School, the Yeltsin and Putin administrations are both described with verbs that denote transition. These authors argue that Yeltsin brought the country up out of everything bad and into the free pastures of everything good. Yeltsin led the people from autocracy to democracy, from planning to markets. Next they claim that Putin, out of a lust for personal power and unsatiated Cold War ambitions, descended upon Moscow and ruined everything. This is utter nonsense. The best that might be said of McFaul is that he hedges his bets, and when his assessment of the Yeltsin years is put under scrutiny, he will craft the subtle argument that it is in fact possible to “have good and bad things happen at the same time.” I focus on Yeltsin here, because the key to understanding Putin’s place in history lies in the chaos he inherited. At Yeltsin’s funeral last April, former President Bill Clinton opined that Yeltsin may have had some rough patches but that “history will be kind to him because he was courageous.” Perhaps Yeltsin was courageous that day when he scrambled up on the tank, but he really made a mess of things in the years after. Yeltsin was an alcoholic with a failing heart; moreover, he was an alcoholic who was afforded the power of lawmaking-by-decree so as to bypass legislative opposition. Let us not forget that the power of arbitrary dictatorship was a step down from his previous method of controlling the people’s deputies, which was to shell them with live rounds of tank ammo as he did in 1993. Where his regime was not totally corrupt, it was totally incompetent. He sold Russia’s vast natural resources for a song, built almost no new democratic infrastructure, and failed to reign in crime. Even Stalin, in the words of many of my Russian friends, “got things done.” American history books will be good to Yeltsin. But the Russian people have about as much chance of warming up to him as we do to Stalin.
Understanding post-Soviet politics requires understanding Yeltsin as a Russian paradigm. Yeltsin’s fatal flaw was not that of corruption, capriciousness or authoritarianism. Rather, Yeltsin’s most egregious sins were his failure to impose order, failure to beat obstacles into submission, and failure to provide for the basic welfare of Russians, a social expectation that largely defined Soviet identity until 1991. He led Russia at its meekest, but did nothing extraordinary to fortify it. Albeit by questionable means, Putin has restored order and delivered prosperity. More than this, he has done it in a way that has unified the Russian people and the language of political discourse. Many Western observers see this monopoly over political discourse as a facet of oppression, but that reading does not capture the issue at hand. Such observers ignore at their own peril the degree to which many Russians seek comfort in the forms of hegemonic discourse channeled through Moscow and the television news. After the collapse, a multiplicity of political discourses emerged, each backed by its own narrow interests, each supported or rejected by foreign interlocutors, and each locked in conflict with one another. The onslaught of articulated interests overwhelmed voters, as scores of political parties registered, interest groups formed, and candidates competed openly. In the first legislative elections, nearly a quarter of the voters threw up their hands in protest and voted for the most theatrical and clownish discourse available. The so-called Liberal Democratic Party, which carried the constituency of despair, proposed among other things to invade India and to reclaim Alaska. Another 4.36% voted against all of the candidates. This rush of plurality failed to address the underlying economic inequalities that affected Russian workers and their families. Rather than providing a means to promote lasting change, the bitter competition between moneyed interests highlighted the fragmentation of national discourse and–by extension–of national identity. By stifling dissent Putin has created a narrative of power and prosperity of which the vast majority of Russians are proud. By renationalizing the resource industries and pumping the money, in the manner of Russia’s predecessor state, back into social welfare and the domestic economy, Putin has improved the quality of life and restored solid political identity. Self-identification in Russia is fundamentally tied to, though is by no means an exclusive function of, politics. Caroline Humphrey suggests that the relationship between space and ruler is best exemplified in the morphology of the terms themselves. The word for household or domain, khoziaistvo, is inseparable from the word for proprietor, khozaian. The Russian word for state, gosudarstvo, is not derived from anything comparable to Latin’s station, is not as Michael Herzfeld points out “that which has always existed,” but rather is tied to word for sovereign, gosudar.’ Spaces are defined by the offices that lead them. The hierarchy of power from peasant to tsar to God was shifted by modernity and the Soviet experience, but its linear structure persists. This kind of outward expression of power in Russia is predicable. Successful ruling is about the ability to structure the institutions beneath the ruler. It would be condescending to assert that this outward power relationship is the whole picture; of course it is not. In the mind of the subject, the comrade, or the citizen, questions of power and subservience are far more complicated, but it is worth remembering that it was not Serbian-style revolution that brought down the Soviet Union. Private dissent, caustic jokes, critical kitchen-table discussions, the desire for self-expression and the circulation of *samizdat’* (forbidden texts) prior to glasnost did not undermine the Soviet Empire. They were simply means of coping with a reality that few expected to seriously change. Rather, internal economic forces and the loosening of ideological controls by Gorbachev destabilized the régime. It was the awakening of a post-war, urban, educated generation–cut off both from Bolshevik optimism and from upward social mobility into the Union’s geriatric cadres–that forced the center to reevaluate the purpose of the party and the plausibility of the Union.
In other words, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not a full rejection of its underlying system of power relationships as much as it was an abandonment of one form of its expression. Prevailing Western depictions of Yeltsin paint him as a flag-bearer for democracy, though most assuredly he was not. As described earlier, many Russians were less concerned about his power to rule by decree or his shelling of the parliament, than they were perturbed by the degree to which he destabilized everything despite his constitutional authority. Russia of the 1990s was a period marked by the ludicrously unjust reallocations of state (the peoples’) assets, rapid inflation, ruble collapse, and a general lack of order memorably described to me by a professor in the Slavic Department as the prazdnichnyi koshmar, or the festive nightmare.
From out of this chaos, described only by CNN as improvement, came Vladimir Putin and–frankly–the West did not know what to make of him, though perhaps they should have known. In the summer of 2000, PBS’s Gwen Ifill asked McFaul to describe the importance or unimportance of Putin’s historical position as the first Russian leader born after the Second World War. His response: I think this tells us a lot. Boris Yeltsin was a transitional figure between the Communist system to this new political and economic system that we have in Russia today. Putin is not a transitional figure. He made his career, most of it, you got [sic] to remember most of his career has been in the post-communist era–and I think says a lot about him. It says that when he turns to economic advice, he doesn’t turn to Soviet bureaucrats or KGB apparatchiks, he turns to market reformers. It says when he looks to the outside world, the Western world, he is not caught back in superpower Soviet-American confrontation–he is a new guy. And I think that’s a very positive thing for Russia. This is as ideological a reading of even the simplest facts as anything Democrats accuse Bush of perpetrating in Iraq. It is striking just how wrong McFaul was on every count. Yeltsin at least had the courtesy to join politics as an apparatchik (a machine politician, a bureaucrat). Putin preferred contract killing–espionage, the life of a chekist (an agent of the state security forces). Needless to say, McFaul now faults Putin for his reliance on “Soviet bureaucrats and KGB apparatchiks,” but unless he was delusional, why did he ever expect Putin to behave otherwise? Putin was very much a man of the Soviet KGB, despite his less-than-exhilarating career assignment in Dresden. After the collapse he headed the FSB under Yeltsin, the successor group to the KGB. The security services were always a channel of upward mobility in Russia, and it is naïve to think that that has changed. The siloviki (the members of the security services) now control as much as a quarter of the top positions in the Putin government, according to one Princeton political scientist’s estimates.
As for consulting “market reformers” one only need consider the popularity of those like Anatoly Borisovich Chubais, the false prophet of shock therapy and privatization guru of the earlier Yeltsin years. In response to a roadside ambush by professionals with automatic weapons in 2005, Chubais claimed that he had just escaped the fourth attempt on his life. Chubais, former Prime Minister Yegor Timurovich Gaidar, and their right-hand man–the thoroughly discredited Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer–are some of the most hated men in Russia today. They do not carry much clout in Putin’s inner circle these days, despite retaining the enormous wealth they garnered through their exploits.
The story of Shleifer is worth a brief aside. In April of 2004, along with Daniel Treisman, he published an article on Russia in Foreign Affairs under the dubious title of “A Normal Country.” They write, “Yet data on Russia’s growth, macroeconomic stability, income inequality, and corporate finances–as well as on its elections, press freedom, and corruption–suggest there is a large gap between the overwhelmingly negative assessments of the country and the facts.” As it turned out, the gap was lager than that between Shleifer’s pen and his wallet. A few months after the article went to print, a federal judge ruled that both Harvard and Shleifer could be held liable for damages relating to an ongoing case between the United States Agency for International Development, which funded his research, and the university. Shleifer and his wife, as it turned out, had much to gain from the rosy assessments they “objectively” reported, and Harvard ended up footing a bill of nearly USD 27 million as a result of the Shleifer family’s Russian investments. Behold the power of tenure; Sheifer was not fired, but was stripped of his former title as the “Whipple V.N. Jones Professor of Economics.” Contrary to McFaul’s initial prediction and much to his followers’ collective consternation, Putin has pursued aggressively anti-democratic policies since taking office. Backed by the siloviki, he has renationalized much of what the oligarchs won during the loans-for-shares debacle, and has even pursed some former tycoons into the courtroom. Mikhail Khordokovsky, the former head of the oil company Yukos, remains in prison in remote Chita where he is serving a long sentence for what many considered to be politically-motivated tax evasion charges. More than a dozen journalists, many critical of the government, have been murdered during Putin’s tenure; however, despite the lethargy of Russian prosecutors, there is not evidence that suggests government complicity in the deaths. Finally, Putin has overseen a radical overhaul of Russian’s federalist system. Regional governors are now appointed to their positions, and there is strong evidence to suggest that a governor’s autonomy is directly related to the ballot results for Putin he is able to produce. In no way should modern Russia be considered a liberal democracy. Flash forward to the present. On Sunday, the New York Times launched what promises to be a multipart series of articles under the banner, Kremlin Rules. The first article focuses on Nizhny Novgorod and the bullying tactics local officials have used to drive up the vote tally for Putin’s party United Russia. Unprecedentedly, the article was published online in Russian, before it appeared in print in America. The Times has committed itself to cataloguing and translating Russian readers’ comments through a partnership with the internet service Live Journal. Many of the commentators expressed frustration at the at the article’s tone, which was widely perceived as paternalistic. In words of a reader, screen named temkkka, “I read the first paragraph and it was enough. Sort out everything in your democracy first.” Or as seebas puts it:
You are writing in our own native tongue…how disgusting is [sic] everything in our country with democracy and freedom of speech. What, actually, do you want? [W]hy do you think that all this is so amusing and we care to know what the West and the States think of us? (translations by the New York Times).
The basic problem seems to be that most Russians do not find the conduct of Putin’s administration to be abhorrent, and even those who do, do not wish to hear it from us. This should not be a surprise. Fairly or not, many Russians associate American interference during the 1990s with the economic turbulence they experienced. Democracy, or whatever that meant under Yeltsin, has become a punch-line. According to a poll conducted last October by the Russian group VTsIOM, Russians have little knowledge of the current crop of business elite, but know well the names of Khordokovsky and of former media-mogul turned Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky. American foreign policy with Putin’s Russia was flawed from the start. President Bush’s first meeting with Putin is remembered for Bush’s extraordinary presumptuousness. In 2001, Bush purported, with no outward evidence of intoxication, to have peered “into Putin’s soul.” Almost worse, he claimed to have liked what he saw. Russians were taken aback by the incident, as in Russia, looking into the soul is a strange concept. The idea of a Russian soul is something profoundly deep, and no one would ever talk about it with such flippant disregard. Since then, the Bush administration has whistled a different tune. Now the strategy is to criticize and preach at every opportunity, with no regard for how negatively such comments are received by the Russian people.
Frankly, American prospects are not good. Adopting the ploy of categorical opposition to everything Bush says, no matter how unworthy of further comment, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton argued that Putin has no soul because, “he was a KGB agent.” In a similar remark, presidential hopeful John McCain asserted, “I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.” Our only hope for a President who will not worsen the Russian situation is Barack Obama. Obama has not yet met the outgoing President of Russia, and has refrained from appraising his soul.
Even if Putin continues to pull the strings in Moscow, we need to adopt a new approach with Medvedev. Putin was not an inexplicable phenomenon, his effect on the country was not as bad as our pundits insist, and it is undeniable that the standard of living in Russia has increased enormously. It is time to let go of the Palo Alto School of moral superiority and to work with Russian in a respectful way. Internal Russian politics are beyond our control and are more complicated than we are willing to admit. We need to accept, as McFaul so blandly put it, that “good and bad things happen at the same time.”