Enter the soft and cuddly Putin. Putin held a webcast question and answer session today to score some brownie points ahead of the G-8 Summit. Among the many questions he answered was why he kissed that boy (he wanted to “pet him like a kitten, nothing more”), his past as a spy, and the first time he did “it”. To the latter question he said this,
“I can’t remember exactly when I did it for the first time,” a laughing Putin said. “But I certainly remember when I did it the last time, to the exact minute.”
To quote Frank Booth, Putin, you’re so fucking suave. You’re one real suave fuck.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
“Are you ever going to put up another post?” Jim asks. I’ve repeatedly asked myself that very question over the last two months. Is SRB dead? Will I ever post again? The answer sounded more and more in the affirmative as I remained silent on what will certainly be the biggest stories of 2010: the summer fires and the sacking of Yuri Luzhkov. The more important stories I missed, the more I was wondering if there was any point to returning to the blogging scene. As other things demanded my attention, something had to give, and unfortunately blogging was one of them.
What were those other things? Well, academia mostly, particularly teaching and writing. Especially teaching. I landed a one year visiting position at Northern Illinois University. This required moving straight from Moscow to Dekalb, IL, that is to say from an international metropolis with all its cosmopolitan accouterments to a small rural university town that lives and dies by the price of corn. I like it here, and it’s a nice change from the urbanity of both Los Angeles and Moscow. It’s nice to not have ghetto birds flying over my house every night (like in LA) and be able to open a window and not hear the atonal serenades of the courtyard drunks (like in Moscow). In Dekalb, the only thing that makes noise is the wind and the crickets.
Most of my time is spent preparing lectures. The position at NIU has me teaching three classes, Imperial Russia, 1682-1917, Stalin and Stalinism, and Europe, 1900-1945. This has been a wonderful experience despite the intensity of the work. Preparing for my PhD exams wasn’t this intense, though it is nice to refresh my knowledge of things I’ve all but forgotten over the last few years. Plus, I like interact with students again (despite my periodic frustrations with them) since I hadn’t taught in well over a year and a half.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve struggled with how I would make my return to blogging. Diving back into the Russian news cycle has proved harder than I anticipated. So, since teaching is on my brain, I thought I would give readers some of my reflections on Imperial Russia and how it relates to politics today.
The history of Imperial Russia has been a challenging subject to distill into a course. It’s such a vibrant history and historiography, far more intellectually innovative that anything produced about the Soviet Union. The trouble therefore is more about what you cut out rather than include. After surveying a number of general narratives, I decided on Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 as the course textbook. In retrospect, I don’t think this was the best choice since Hosking structures his book around a pointed argument rather on a general historical narrative. It is challenging for uninitiated students simply because it is thematic rather than chronological. But Hosking’s argument is provocative and serves as a good theme to bounce a course off.
Hosking deals with an old academic question in a new way. He asks why Russia failed to develop into a liberal nation. Granted he never uses the trope of liberalism explicitly. Rather, his liberalism is shrouded in a discourse of the Russian “nation,” and particularly the lack of the civic variety. Using the Russian concepts of rossiiskii and russkii as incomparable poles, Hosking seeks to narrate Russian history as how the latter consistently undermined the former. That is to say, the effort to build and maintain a Russian (russkii) empire via a strong Russian (russkii) state prevented the creation of a civic (rossiiskii) Russian nation. I see this as nothing more than code words for liberalism, i.e. why Russia didn’t develop a strong civic nation along the lines of say Britain and the United States. A civic nation for Hosking is:
“A nation is a participating citizenry, participating in the sense of being involved in law-making, law-adjudication and government, through elected central and local assemblies, through courts and tribunals, and also as members of political parties, interest groups, voluntary associations and other institutions of civil society.”
Imperial Russia never became one of these. Its trajectory of reform was too moribund to fully confront the challenges of modernity, and its empire proved to be too paradoxical for internal reconciliation. This is not to say that all of Russian shuned modernity. One of the constant contradictions is that Russia embraced the cultures of modernity, particularly among its intelligentsia, but not its political structures. The political base was incongruent with its cultural superstructure.
While Hosking serves as a good backdrop, my lectures intermittently intersect his thesis. Granted, I too deal with Imperial Russia’s struggle to modernize. It provides a story that students can follow and in light of Medvedev’s mantra a good way to provide historical reflection on the present. However, my interest isn’t why Russia failed to become just like Europe (thus avoiding 1917), but more in how reform in Russia exemplified particularly Russian characteristics. By this I mean, the idea that the state is a modernizing force, that reform in Russia tends to be “from above,” and how the Imperial state though desiring modernization was reluctant to cede power to society. Essentially, Russia’s modernizing Tsars (Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander I, Nicholas I, and Alexander II) wanted their cake and eat it too.
Russia’s historical struggle with modernization throws Medvedev and Putin’s efforts into a new light. There is nothing new in their efforts. The President and Prime Minister are posing essentially the same questions that Russian statesmen did before them. The only difference is that Medvedev, in particular, clothes his statements in democratic rhetoric. The message, however, is for the most part out of Tsarist playbook: the need for regularized state administration, the rule of law, the improvement local administration and other institutions, stamping out corruption, etc. This is not to say that Russia hasn’t changed in 100 years. It is only to point out that Russia’s efforts to establish what Marc Raeff called a Rechtsstaat–a state that functions according to codified laws, rules, and procedures–is a historically elusive goal. When I read senior officials saying things like: “Russia’s problem is that the whole population thinks ‘I can observe the law in my own way’. Modernisation means that we have to stop doing that; stop all the exceptions, and behave like Germany or France, where they have mature political and judicial systems,” I can’t help but see some of the same problems Imperial Russia dealt with.
Like Russian statesmen before them, Medvedev and Putin perpetuate the very problems they hope to solve. Though desired, “modernization” contains dangers for the powers that be. These dangers aren’t in giving power to the populace–this has never been on the table anyway. The danger is in what to do about the political elite. The Russian state has always been at odds with its elites, and the elites always at odds with itself. Under Tsarism, as the 18th century showed, the noble elite could make or break Tsars. The 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Great Terror of 1937-38, proves that the Russian elite has a historical tendency to cannibalize itself. It never, in the words of Marx, became a class for itself. Namely, the Russian elite always considered politics as a zero sum game. Theirs is a class that has failed to set up “gentlemanly rules” of politics like in Western Europe or the US. Those rules include an understanding that you can steal, cheat, and exploit as much as you want as long as you understand that we’re all in this together and that despite our personal and ideological differences this is our state. The ruling classes of America and Europe understand that outright corruption should be kept at a minimum because as the guardians of law and order they can always legalize it. The law facilitates elite power rather than undermines it.
The Russian elite in contrast see the state as mine and the law as an impediment to reaping the spoils. The lack of “rules” for elite machinations make them reliant on a strong arbiter to settle disputes. In this sense, the Russian autocratic tradition is a product of elite politics. The Russian elite could never get its shit together, to put it mildly, and when it did like in the Decembrist Revolt, it turned to utter disaster because of bad planning, hesitance, and cowardliness. This is why I think that while Putin will not return as President, he will still hang around because he is still the one with enough clout to prevent his boyars from killing each other. Now granted, Medvedev might become that guy as he further develops his “krysha,” but I doubt that it will ultimately hold without Putin’s backing.
If there is one ground rule the Russian elite must abide by is not to poke its nose in the affairs of the ruler, unless solicited. Most Tsars never trusted the nobility and for good reason. Boyar clans threw Russia into chaos on a number of occasions, and this is why many Tsars–Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great, Alexander I, and Nicholas I–surrounded themselves with close associates and often bypassed bureaucratic channels. Nicholas I didn’t trust the bureaucracy, and I suspect that Putin and Medvedev don’t either, despite the former facilitating its bolstering. This has had deleterious effects on how Russia is ruled. It’s more personal and hands on than in the West. The Russian President can’t really trust his underlings and must personally intercede in sometimes the smallest of issues. The only benefit of this is that the Presidents personal involvement plays well to a kind of populism.
It was Luzhkov’s violation of the golden rule that led to his unceremonious removal. His efforts to poke his nose in the affairs of the tandem, even if its was only a soft poke, were intolerable. And it’s not that Luzhkov could actually split Medvedev and Putin. The real danger is that others might follow his example. If Luzhkov was smart he would read the writing on the wall and retire somewhere and tend to his bees. Refashioning himself as a “democrat,” while utterly laughable, is suicide. He knows, like everyone, that putting him, his wife, and their clients in the slammer for corruption wouldn’t be hard. In fact, making a scandal of it would do well to boost the Kremlin’s populist appeal. Today’s announcement from Yabloko that they’re willing to work with Yuri Mikhailovich won’t earn him in favor in the Kremlin. There is one word that should ring in Luzhkov’s head as his considers his next move: Khodorkovsky.
I try to bring in some of these reflections in the classroom. Students like history to pertain the present if only to understand its relevance. Imperial Russia works well in this regard because when most people think of Putin they think of the USSR and unfortunately Stalin. I’ve repeatedly maintained that Putin’s style is more like Nicholas I. Putin, like Nicholas I, is first and foremost a Russian nationalist. He understands the need to modernize Russia, but is reluctant to delegate the necessary power to help its facilitation. Following this logic, one might think of Medvedev as Alexander II, the “Tsar-Liberator.” I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. If anything, Medvedev’s rule is more like Nicholas’ older brother, Alexander I. Alexander talked a lot of enlightenment and liberalism. He created commissions to talk about serfdom and modernizing Russia. Ultimately, he did nothing besides some minor cosmetic changes. Medvedev is similar and I doubt there will be any qualitative change even in his second term.
If Tsarist Russia is any guide, we might not look to Putin or Medvedev as key figures in Russia’s modernization. Instead we might try to identify any “enlightened bureaucrats” among them. They, if they exist, might be the real movers and shakers in Russia’s modernization. That said, if the history of Russia’s political elite is any indication, the only thing standing in their way is themselves and their interclass rivals.
h/t Austere Insomniac for the image.Post Views: 573
By Sean — 10 years ago
Here’s a surprise. The Russian Duma overwhelmingly approved Putin as Prime Minister. Okay, it’s not that surprising. The Communists did hold to their word to vote against him. Out of the possible 450 votes, Putin got 392, all 56 Communist reps voted against him. Two Duma members weren’t present to cast their ballots. But Zyuganov speech where he criticized much of Putin’s presidential tenure didn’t sway anyone else. If you want to read a thorough analysis of Putin becoming PM, then I advise that you turn to Lyndon’s analysis on Scraps of Moscow.
But how the diarchy, tandemocarcy, or whatever you want to call it, sees itself might lie in Medvedev’s coronation, ahem, I mean, inauguration. Russia Profile‘s Andrei Zolotov articulates something that I felt while watching it: the ceremony’s Tsarist flavor. Zolotov writes:
The tsarist allusion was all too natural throughout the ceremony – and it correctly reflects the nature of the Russian regime, which combines the elements of democracy with a strong monarchist tradition. After all, it was in the throne hall of the royal Grand Kremlin Palace, which was reconstructed in the 1990s, that the inauguration was taking place, with the throne draped behind the backdrop in the colors of the Russian flag. Or maybe it was removed for the occasion – the glamorous television broadcast did not show it. But in any case, it stands empty, although carefully reconstructed after Soviet-era demolition – a telling sign of the often untold mourning of the monarchy lost.
The role of the Orthodox Church in the inauguration of the head of the secular state requires special attention. During President Boris Yeltsin’s inauguration in 1996, which took place in the Soviet –era Kremlin Palace of Congresses, Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church was on the stage, along with the heads of the Constitutional Court and the chambers of parliament, and he gave a blessing to the president and made a short speech at the end of the ceremony.
Dmitry and Svetlana Medvedev with Patriarch Alexy II and other Russian Orthodox Church officials after the private prayer service in the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral on Wednesday. On the left – Archpriest Vladimir Volgin, apparent pastor to the Medvedev family. As of Putin’s first inauguration in 2000, the authorities began to treat the separation of church and state more carefully. On Wednesday, just as in 2000 and 2004, the patriarch stood first among the guests in St. Andrew’s hall, but not on the podium where Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court dressed in a mantel and hat, played the role of the high priest of the law. But immediately after the inauguration ceremony per se, he served a private prayer service for the new president in the Annunciation Cathedral – the ancient private chapel of the Russian tsars. Apart from some prominent bishops, according to a group photograph released by the Moscow Patriarchate, the ceremony was attended by a prominent Moscow Archrpriest Vladimir Volgin, thus confirming the rumors that he is the pastor to Medvedev family.
Just for a comparison, here’s a snippet of how Count von Moltkle described Alexander II’s coronation in 1855.
At nine o’clock the doors of the imperial rooms were opened; the flock of the chamberlains set itself in motion; the empress-mother appeared, supported by her two youngest sons. She wore a close crown entirely of diamonds, an ermine mantle of gold material, the train of which was borne by six chamberlains, and which was fastened by a magnificent diamond chain. The slight figure, the cameo profile, the majestic carriage of the illustrious woman, the joyful seriousness of her features, called forth the unconscious admiration of every one. On the previous evening she had assembled all her children and blessed them. She was followed by the hereditary grand duke, the grand dukes and grand duchesses, Prince Frederic William, Prince Frederic of the Netherlands, Alexander of Hesse, and the other royal princes, then their suites, and after us the ladies. The procession passed through the halls of Alexander, Vladimir, and George, which together make a length of about five hundred feet. On the left paraded the Palace Grenadiers, the Chevalier Guards, the Cuirassiers, with shining breastplates, deputations from the other cavalry and infantry regiments—all with standards and flags and bright arms. To the right were all the officers.
. . .
Then the regalia were brought in by the highest military and civil officials—the imperial banner with the double-eagle of Byzantium, the great seal (a great steel plate without any other ornament), the sword of the Empire, the coronation robes of both Their Majesties, the imperial globe with a cross belt of great diamonds (Severin served it upon a drap-d’or cushion), the scepter with the well-known great Lazaref diamond—which stands second in size only to the Kohinoor (mountain of light), the Prince Regent, and perhaps one or two others—and, finally, the two crowns. The large one of the emperor is formed by a bow from front to back of diamonds, and trimmed with a row of very great pearls. The bow has a cross in which is a ruby of inestimable value. This stone is an inch long, about half an inch wide, and a quarter of an inch thick, but irregular and not cut. From the band around the head rise on either side two covers which fasten on to the bow, so that one sees nothing of the velvet cap that is inside. The band and the sides are entirely of diamonds, of considerable size and the finest water. It glitters with every color in the sun. The empress’s crown is similar, but smaller, and it did not seem easy to keep it on the top of her head, where it was fastened with diamond hairpins.
Now the cross was carried from the church toward the approaching emperor, and the Metropolitan of Moscow sprinkled his path with holy water. Their Majesties bowed three times toward the gate of the sanctuary, and then took their seats upon the throne; the high church dignitaries filled the space from the throne to the middle door of the ikonostase; and the choir struck up the psalm “Misericordiam.” I have already written you of the affecting beauty of the Russian church songs, executed by male voices without instrumental accompaniment. They are very old, and have been collected from the East, and differ widely from the poor hymns of the Protestant and from the opera-music of the Catholic Church. The singers are extraordinarily trained, and one hears almost incredible bass voices, which echo with imposing strength from the firm walls and domes of this limited space.
Since Peter I incorporated the patriarchal power, the metropolitan is the highest priest of this great empire, at this time the handsome but already decrepit old Philaretes, who crowned the Emperor Nicholas I. It is of great importance for a high priest to have a strong bass voice: the voice of the old metropolitan could scarcely be heard, when he requested the emperor to say the creed. As soon as this was done, the emperor was invested with the coronation mantle, consisting of the richest gold brocade lined with ermine. He bowed his head, and remained in this position while the metropolitan laid his hands on his head and gave two long benedictions. Then the emperor called for the crown, placed it himself upon his head, took the scepter in his right hand, the imperial globe in his left, and seated himself upon the throne. Thereupon the empress stood before him and knelt down. The emperor takes the crown from his head and touches the empress with it, after which she is also invested with mantle and crown, and seats herself on the throne to the left of her spouse.
It was beautiful to see the intense interest with which the stately old empress-mother followed all the ceremonies. Meanwhile her youngest son was always at her side, supported her, wrapped the ermine about her that she might not take cold. The wife of a North American diplomat fainted near me, the Grand Duchess Helene fell into the grand duke’s arms, but the old mother of the emperor remained steady. Then she arose and firmly ascended the steps of the throne, the glittering crown upon her head and her gold brocaded mantle trailing behind her. Before all the world she embraced her first-born son and blessed him. The emperor kissed her hands. Then followed the grand dukes and princes with low bows; the emperor embraced them. Meanwhile the Domine salve fac imperatorem was sung, all the church-bells were ringing, and hundreds of cannon made the windows tremble. All present bowed low three times. Then the monarch divests himself of the imperial robes, descends from the throne, and kneels to pray. After he has risen, all present kneel or bow their heads to pray for the welfare of the new emperor.
No mortal man has such power in his hands as the absolute monarch of the tenth part of all the inhabitants of the earth, whose scepter reaches over four quarters of the globe, and who rules over Christians and Jews, Mussulmans, and pagans. Why should one not pray to God heartily to enlighten the man whose will is law to sixty millions of people, whose word commands from the Chinese wall to the Weichsel, from the Arctic Ocean to Mount Ararat; for whose call a half-million soldiers wait, and who has just given peace to Europe? May he be successful in the innumerable conquests still to be made in the interior of this great empire, and may he always remain a strong supporter of lawful regulations!
Von Moltke’s hope that Alexander “remain a strong supporter of lawful regulations” has quite a familiar echo in the present.Post Views: 470
By Sean — 4 years ago
Brian Whitmore often says on the Power Vertical podcast that approval ratings in 60 percent range just aren’t good enough for a politician like Vladimir Putin. Given the lack of political alternatives and the dominance of the state’s narrative on television, Putin needs approval ratings in 70 or 80 percent range to have a comfortable political mandate. Thanks to the Sochi Olympics and taking Crimea, Putin is back up to 80 percent according to a recent Levada poll. Putin hasn’t garnered this level of approval since March 2008 when his rating peaked at 85 percent. Putin isn’t the only one basking in the Olympic-annexation surge. Sixty percent of Russians also think the country is going in the right direction, a high, once again, not seen since March 2008. Even the hapless Dmitry Medvedev and his government are riding Putin’s coattails. Medvedev enjoys 62 percent and the government 58 percent approval rating. In January, Medvedev was at an all time low of 48 percent while approval for the government hasn’t been this high since March 2008 when Putin became prime minister.
How to explain this jump in Putin rating? Denis Volkov of the Leveda Center told Slon the following:
“Eighty percent is not the highest result for Putin. During the Georgian War in 2008 his approval rating was 88 percent. But the mechanism driving the numbers is the same. The rise occurred thus: the Olympics added a few percentage points and the rating grew a few more because of the possibility of war and the mobilization of patriotic sentiment. And the joining of Crimea to Russia gave an additional 8-10 percent.”
When 80 percent of the population approves of the president, you have to be determined to express an opposing opinion. I’m not talking now about the internet where there is a sufficient broad range of views which is contrary to what’s on television.”
No, he’s talking about television where there’s only one opinion.Post Views: 650