Being the world’s (self-declared) only “democrat” is quite lonely. Just ask Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The Russian President feels that there are no more democrats to talk to. No one who will understand the travails as the world’s “absolute, pure democrat.” “But you know the problem?” Putin rhetorically asks. “It’s not even a problem, it’s a real tragedy. The thing is that I am the only one, there just aren’t any others in the world.” Awww . . . poor guy!
Yes shame on the evil German police for using rubber bullets and tear gas on all those poor G8 demonstrators.
And shame on those heartless North Americans with their homeless, wonton use of torture and
And let us not forget those ungrateful Ukrainians with their absolute disregard for “the constitution and all its laws” as they goosestep toward “complete tyranny.”
Yes if only the venerable Mahatma Gandhi were still alive because now “there’s nobody to talk to.” Why God? Why do you always take the good ones!?
Sniff . . . I think I’m going to cry . . .
Or cry laughing.
To demonstrate his fortitude as the world’s only democrat, Putin suggested that Russian presidential terms be extended to “five or seven years.” After all, democracy is long hard work.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
The new issue of the New Left Review has two articles on Russia worth reading. The first, “Russia Redux?” by Vladimir Popov, examines the macroeconomic trends Russia has experienced since Putin became president. Though “there is more stability in Russia today than during the rocky 1990s,” Popov argues, compared to other post-Soviet republics “Russia’s performance is not that impressive.” Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, to some extent, Armenia all “reached or exceeded their pre-recession (1989) levels of output by 2006, whereas Russian GDP was still only at 85 per cent of the 1989 level.” Further he states the reason for Russia lax growth rate is due to the ruble’s overvalue and economy’s sandy foundations:
The reason for the 2001–06 deceleration in growth was the overvaluation of the real exchange rate—the typical Dutch disease that Russia has developed once again. It first arose in 1995–98, leading to the currency crisis of August 1998, and it now seems that history is repeating itself. Optimists argue that, unlike in 1998, Russia currently has large foreign exchange reserves (over $250 billion), but pessimists point out that if oil prices drop and capital starts to flee at a rate of $5 billion a week, as it did in July–August 1998, these reserves would be depleted very quickly. A future devaluation could take the form of either a currency crisis or a ‘soft landing’, but there is little doubt that it will eventually take place.
Besides, current growth is not based on solid foundations: wages and incomes in recent years have been growing systematically faster than productivity, so that the share of consumption in gdp has increased at the expense of investment. As a result, whereas Russian personal and public consumption has already exceeded the pre-recession level, investment is still below 40 per cent of what it was in the last year of existence of the USSR. Russian gross savings are large—over 30 per cent of GDP—but they have been funnelled away via the outflow of private capital and the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves; gross investment therefore amounts to less than 20 per cent of GDP.
In regard to where Russia is headed, Popov prognosis is that Russia’s future depends on how it chooses to reconcile one of its longest running historical conundrums:
Russia now needs more than anything to strengthen law and order and to restore the institutional capacity of the state. Democracy is also needed, but only later, when the rule of law has been established. There is, of course, a danger that the leadership will use political centralization to line everyone up along the ‘vertical of power’ and eliminate opposition in order to live in serene comfort at the citizens’ expense—and perhaps also to embark on the occasional escapade. This has happened in Russia before. But one must choose the lesser of two evils. Strengthening law and order is only possible under a centralized system. Without centralization, there is no chance at all of it happening; unbounded chaos and lawlessness would rule. This seems to be the choice facing Russia today.
Popov’s article is nicely supplemented by Tony Wood’s “Contours of the Putin Era.” Taking off from Popov’s economic analysis, Wood probes further into how Russian society has faired under Putin in terms of the distribution of wealth, the fissures in the elite, the reorientation of informal practices, and the costs of crime and the Chechen War.
One of the more interesting points Wood makes concerns the character of Russia’s ruling class. He notes that while “the melding of security services and political power is a salient characteristic of Putin’s Russia,” more striking is “the swelling presence of business in the state.”
Business has been a significant source of state cadres. This applies at all levels: a whole section of Putin’s Presidential Administration was drawn from the ranks of Al’fa Bank, while as Table 1 shows, by 2003 some 20 per cent of the government was drawn from business, which provided almost the same proportion of Duma deputies. The representation of business in the upper house of the Russian Federal Assembly was still higher: in 2002, almost a third of Federation Council members came from private enterprises. More than a dozen Russian regions, resource-rich ones prominent among them, are now headed by businessmen from major local companies.
Perhaps Andrei Illarionov charges that the Russian state is “corporatist” is not so far fetched after all.
Wood’s conclusion is an answer to Popov’s notion that Russia must choose between a lesser of two evils:
Popov concludes by emphasizing the need to choose the lesser evil of centralization and potential authoritarianism over the inevitable unravelling and chaos that will accompany any other course. Stability is the prime consideration; democracy can wait until more favourable circumstances develop. The question that immediately arises is: stability for whom? From the foregoing analysis, it should be clear that Russia’s rulers have little interest in the fortunes of the general populace; the current priority is rather to use the country’s natural resources to leverage a greater role in global affairs, and so carve out further opportunities for the internationalization of Russian capital. Entry into the wto will assist in the latter goal, though it will also bring with it a dismantling of the protections that have served Russian industry well, and undermine recent attempts to revive manufacturing in the automobile and aviation sectors. To the dangers Popov lists, then, we should add the exposure to international capitalist pressures and widening of existing inequalities that inevitably accompany WTO accession. These forms of destabilization will, of course, largely bypass the fractions of business and state most actively seeking them.
Finally, there is the matter of the lesser evil. Popov poses the alternatives in stark terms: the status quo or utter disaster. Such logic has long helped to rally critics of various kinds to otherwise unpalatable governments. But it is precisely the immunity from challenge or debate that enables crime, coercion and corruption to flourish; conversely, it is the availability of alternative proposals for future paths of development that constitutes the political health of a nation. Popov’s analysis presents many points from which such a discussion could begin.Post Views: 75
By Sean — 5 years ago
Arch Getty’s comment, “Putin in History,” was included in today’s Johnson’s Russia List. I asked him if I could repost it here. He kindly agreed. Full disclosure, Professor Getty was my dissertation advisor and mentor at UCLA.
Putin and Russian History
By J. Arch Getty
An occupational hazard of being a Russian historian is that people often ask “What about Putin?” “What’s going to happen in Russia?” Historians are generally allergic to making predictions, and predicting Russia has a very poor track record; almost nobody predicted the sudden fall of the USSR. But because we are at least somewhat the products of the past, that past may tell us something about the future. So where does Putin come from?
In the short-term, Putin’s perception of society is easy to trace to KGB culture in the Brezhnev era: disruptive or unorthodox events were seen as misguided, incomprehensible, or even mentally unbalanced challenges to order. In short, because Soviet society is perfect, protests must originate with foreign enemies, outside agitators or mental illness, so protestors should be ridiculed and punished. This explains Putin’s ludicrous but characteristic reaction that the 2011-2012 winter Bolotnaia election protestors were dupes responding to Hillary Clinton’s “signal,” his offensive mocking of their white ribbons as condoms, and his reflex to punish demonstration leaders.
But there are historically deeper Russian sources for Putin’s myopic vision and actions. For example, in 1825, following the defeat of Napoleon, noble Russian army officers returned from Paris with subversive French Revolutionary ideas about human rights, elections, constitutions, and the rule of law. In December of that year, they staged a demonstration and abortive coup attempt aimed at overthrowing the Russian monarchy. The “Decembrist Revolt” was quickly put down by royal power deployed by the new tsar, Nicholas I.
From the official side, tsar Nicholas I (like Putin) could not understand what was happening. Nicholas was so perplexed that while harshly punishing the Decembrists, he (unlike Putin) had jailhouse conversations with several of them in order to understand their motivations. But like Putin, Nicholas’ world view prevented him from seeing that society was changing. He responded with the official slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality,” a conservative statement that, by the way, Putin could embrace. Instead of understanding the changes around them, both rulers quickly deployed punitive state power against the ringleaders. Since society was basically sound as it was, one could nip change in the bud simply by decapitating it, right?
It seemed that nothing came of the 1825 revolt. Disappointed observers ridiculed the dilettante noble demonstrators for being unable to transform their opposition into a real revolution: They had no mass support. They were poor planners and organizers. Some of them even overslept or got lost that day and missed the action altogether. In the long run, however, seeds had been planted. The poor, marginalized and imprisoned Decembrists of 1825 would inspire later generations of Russian reformers and revolutionaries of all stripes who gradually attracted broader social support and who eventually brought down the monarchy in 1917. Reformers and revolutionaries would later glorify the memory of the hapless Decembrists as forerunners who planted the seeds of change but could not live to see their flowering.
Today’s protesters are also ridiculed and belittled, especially by leftists both in Russia and the west, for not becoming more. But in the long view (which we historians are trained to take) change in Russia has always come very slowly, and one wonders if in a future Russia people will not look back at the Bolotnaia and even Pussy Riot demonstrators as the beginnings of something big, something that took a while to mature. Even if we scoff at their lost potential, let us also not forget that these recent demonstrations for democracy were unprecedented in their scale. They dwarf the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s and 1980s which, as it turned out, planted much smaller seeds.
Both Nicholas I and Putin represent an old Russian tradition whereby the monarchy doggedly refused to understand or compromise with change. Nicholas’ unbending obsolete vision and inflexibility would do much to radicalize later Russian reformers. Like him, his great-grandson Nicholas II would also be inherently unable to understand the forces for social change around him, and he and the monarchy were eventually swept away by the 1917 revolutions. Nicholas I, Nicholas II, Brezhnev and Putin just didn’t get it. They were constitutionally unable to understand society and how it changes.
They all had silent majorities behind them at one point. Today, some 65% of the population supports Putin, compared with 1% for demonstration leader Navalny. But the long clocks of change were and are ticking, even if few notice at the time. Today it seems that Putin has an unchallenged upper hand and has never been stronger. On the other hand, the Bolotnaia protesters, Pussy Riot women, and possibly leaders like Navalny seem to be fading into obscurity, oblivion and prison. But in the future, the historical results of today’s impotent protests and Putin’s reaction to them could look very different.
It is possible that Russian strongman monarchy is built into Russian political culture. But it is just as possible that its days are numbered. Polling support for Putin is inversely proportional to educational levels, which are broadly rising. These protesters may mark something big, something ultimately decisive. Putin’s clock is ticking, but he has inherited the deafness of all Russian monarchs. And even if he could hear the ticks he wouldn’t know what to do about them.
J. Arch Getty is Professor of History at UCLA. He is the author of several books on Russian history, including Practicing Stalinism: Boyars, Bolsheviks and the Persistence of Tradition, (Yale University Press, 2013) will be published in July.Post Views: 96
By Sean — 10 years ago
As the sun begins to set on Putin’s Presidency and his direct personal sway over Russia’s future is still undetermined, there is one legacy we can count on. A new “-ism” called Putinism.
With the help of LexisNexis, I’ve been trying to track down the first appearance of this supposed ideology attached to the person of Vladimir Putin. A search of Major US and foreign publications, wire services, and TV and radio transcripts reveals a rather serpentine history to Putinism’s literary life.
According to my search, “Putinism” was born in early 2000. The first mention of the word came a mere six days after Vladimir Putin was named acting President of Russia. It was coined by an unlikely figure, Richard Gwyn, in an unlikely publication, the Toronto Star. I say unlikely because while Gwyn is considered “one of Canada’s best-known and most highly-regarded political commentators,” he is no Kremlinologist nor is he even a frequent commentator on Russian affairs. Still, this didn’t stop him from writing in “The World Needs a Strong Russian State” that Putinism means “a state that is strong and yet also is, more or less, democratic” (1/5/00). For Gwyn, Putin’s tenure in the FSB was more a blessing than a curse, a job that prepared him with the skill and will to meet the challenge the “cabal of billionaires” posed to his supposed “hatred of corruption.” In fact, for Gwyn, Putinism is not only predicated on a strong Russian state, which by the way he then claimed Russia and the world needed, its “distinctive hallmark . . . may turn out to be the rooting out of corruption and criminality.” Andrei Pointkovsky, however, saw Putinism as just the opposite. For him, Putin was more the protector of corruption rather than its scourge. He was destined to be mere pawn of the Yeltsin oligarchs. Borrowing Lenin’s famous statement about imperialism, Pointkovsky called Putinism “the highest stage of robber capitalism.” Both views seem to still hold water in 2007. However, whether Putin is a rooter or protector of corruption depends much on who’s playing the robber. Even more, Gwyn’s labeling of Putin’s government as “more or less” democratic would now be considered political heresy among the Anglophone chattering classes.
It would only take a few weeks after Gwyn’s piece for Putinism to begin its transformation into a system Western liberals and conservatives alike would love to hate. And what a better person to recast the light of Putinism into darkness than a conservative mandarin like William Safire. In a column titled, “Putinism Looms,” the conservative ideologue prophesied in Putin the emergence of “the cooler of repression and autocratic rule.” And for a unabashed free marketeer like Safire this not only spelled doom for Russia’s fledgling democracy, but would also usher in “an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia.” Only a “Yavlinsky Era” could “marry a literate work force to a free-market system under law” and make Russia a competitive world power. In Safire’s mind, “Putinism” would only become “surly stagnation” (1/31/00). Looking back, Safire’s prophesy of economic doom has proved utterly false.
Still, “Putinism” itself began to catch on after leaving Safire’s pen. Even the British began to show a fancy toward it, thereby adding to its evolution. In April, the London Times warned Tony Blair of Putinism’s “low-intensity brand of Russian nationalism that seems reasonably inclusive unless you happen to be male, Chechen and of fighting age” (4/15/00). In May, the Guardian would be the first British paper to mention Putinism in conjunction with the S-word, Stalinism . The Guardian didn’t come up with the Stalinist connection on its own. The idea that Putinism was “nothing short of modernized Stalinism” was posited by “a band of former Soviet dissidents.” These unnamed “dissidents” were “widely dismissed as hysterical prophets of doom.” Nevertheless, the Guardian felt that their warnings were sane enough have “an uneasy new resonance” (5/29/00).
By summer, the Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir had adopted “Putinism” in his piece “Putin’s Recipe for a Strong Russia.” Weir never explicitly uses the term himself but quotes it from then vice president of the Parliamentary Foundation, Andrei Zakharov. And like Safire, Weir via Zakharov saw Putinism as the supposed contradiction between “autocratic measures” and fruitful “economic growth.” “This,” said Zakharov, “is the central paradox of Putinism.” Weir didn’t disagree, and like Safire, he was proved wrong too (7/13/00).
Perhaps the initial connecting of Putinism with Russian economic stagnation is what caused the term to fall virtually out of use until 2003. In fact, the last mention of it until then was in late 2001, when the NY Times’ Thomas Friedman reversed Putinism’s economic meaning entirely. Friedman saw Putin as the garden where the fruits of capital were being plucked from the free market trees. He congratulated Putinism role in cultivating Moscow’s “exploding middle class,” showered comparisons between Putin and Deng Xiaoping, and cited “young capitalists coming of age” as proof that the Russians could “actually do this capitalist thing.” Friedman saw Putinism as such a positive, he urged his readers to “keep rootin’ for Putin”(12/23/01).
Then suddenly and without warning the press went silent after Friedman’s adulation. Was the endorsement of the self-proclaimed guru of globalization enough to calm the emerging paranoia of America’s political class? Perhaps. But if I would place my a bet, the disappearance of Putinism was a delayed response to George Bush’s now infamous, “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The establishment press got the signal and any talk of Putin as -ism wasn’t uttered for over a year.
Perhaps having seen enough, William Safire finally broke the silence in late 2003. Days before he penned “The Russian Reversion” for the NY Times, United Russia swept the Duma elections, winning 223 seats. The “Yavlinksy Era” never dawned, and the liberals’ thumping in the polls didn’t inspire hope of their return. The Russian love for authoritarianism seemed in the air. The time was ripe to reintroduce Putinism. And this time Safire said nothing of its economic pretensions. Instead, Putinism was set alongside another word, the siloviki. “Russia’s short-lived experiment with democracy is all but dead,” Safire declared. Putinism was now “repressive rule through money and media control” (12/10/03).
As he seemed to do in 2000, Safire’s 2003 revision of Putinism set its future tone. Putinism’s similitude to the siloviki has since garnered the most consensus. It is even the definition that dominates Putinism’s Wikipedia entry. Four days after Safire’s rehabilitation, the Washington Post followed suit with a hysterical editorial by George Will titled, “Democracy Under Siege.” Will seemed intent on not being outdone by Safire in regard to editorial hyperbole. For him, Putinism was nothing short of
“uprooting the shallow seedlings of democracy across Russia’s 11 time zones. Putinism is becoming a toxic brew of nationalism directed against neighboring nations, and populist envy, backed by assaults of state power, directed against private wealth. Putinism is a national socialism without the demonic element of its pioneer who, 70 years ago this year, used plebiscitary democracy to acquire the power to extinguish German democracy. There probably are not enough Jews remaining in Russia to make anti-Semitism a useful component of Putinism. But do not bet on that either” (12/14/03).
To put it plainly, Putinism was simply Nazism in a Russian key. Russia’s economic dynamism made warnings of a communist comeback ring hollow. So Will reached deeper into his bag of historical villains of “Freedom” and pulled out Hitler. And thank god so many Jews left anti-Semitic Russia because if you listened to Will, the next Holocaust was right around the corner.
As for Putinism itself, Safire’s and Will’s salvos made the term stick. Of the 160 articles that mentioned Putinism between 2000-2007, 143 were published after 2003. Other pundits turn their ire to Putinism. USA Today columnist Bill Nichols called Putinism “a one-party state” that “smacks of Soviet-style authoritarianism” (3/15/04). Roy Greenslade of the Guardian said that Putinism “happens when Stalinism hooks up with capitalism” (10/19/04). Ah yes, history was nothing more than political clay in the hands of the pundit class.
Moreover, Putinism became a favorite of the American neo-conservative right to hoist upon the Great Bear as its “near abroad” sought to cast off the Russian yoke. George Will cried that “Putinism was on the march” when Putin backed Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich against the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko (WP, 11/30/04). Putinism was connected again with Russia’s “imperialist aspirations” as Russophobes saw “colored revolution” looming in Belarus. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl even went so far to suggest that Belarus was the weakest link in the Putinist chain. “A toppling of the Lukashenko regime would probably make Putinism unsustainable even in Russia,” he wrote (1/3/05). Whereas Putinism was the enemy of free market capitalism in 2000, the gravedigger of Russian democracy in 2003, by early 2005, Putinism was the antithesis of the great democracy blooming from “colored revolution.”
After Ukraine and Belarus, it appears that Putinism’s meaning finally began to crystallize. It started to tally up more and more “victims” of state repression–Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, Aleksander Litvinenko, and Anna Politkovskaya. Virtually unknown and rather unscrupulous Russians were suddenly transformed into the mujahedin of Russian democracy. More and more often Anglophone columnists saw in Putin an echo of Stalinism or a Tsarist redux complete with its own slick image, mechanisms of repression, control, chauvinism, and cult of personality. To suggest otherwise was to either come off as a lunatic, a heretic in the global democratic faith, or a practitioner in the amorality of relativism.
By February 2007, Putinism as a metonym for neo- or quasi- Stalinism was all but complete. This is best seen in the historical broad strokes Arnold Beichman painted Putinism. Beichman, a research fellow at that bunker of anti-communist holy warriors, the Hoover Institution, wrote in the Washington Times that “Putinism in the 21st century has become as significant a watchword as Stalinism was in the 20th” (2/06/07). And to think George Will sounded like a nutjob. Still, Putin as Stalin is conventional wisdom now. A LexisNexis search shows that Putin and Stalin appear in the same sentence in major English language newspapers 1,237 times. 274 of those were in 2007 alone.
What can be made of this journey of Putinism from a mantra for a strong Russian, anti-corruption state, to a inherent contradiction of the free flow of capital, to a symbol of an anti-democratic, nationalist, and imperialistic system run by a cabal of chekisty, to finally end up nothing more than a postmodernized Stalinism?
There is something deifying yet damning about turning a person into an “-ism.” Many of the “-isms” connected with personalities are often ascribed by both critics or adherents. Never does the person prefacing the “-ism” make the egotistical jump to being an ideological adherent to himself. For better or for worse, this is left to others. For example, Lazar Kaganovich coined “Stalinism” in praise of the vodzh’, though Stalin himself would have simply called himself a disciple of Lenin. Marx denied that he was ever a “Marxist.” Lenin never said he was a Leninist. The same goes for Trotsky and Trotskyism. Joseph Goebbels often spoke of Hitlerism, though it is doubtful that Hitler ever referred to himself as its proponent. Reaganism was coined by Reagan’s critics in the New Republic in 1971. It’s difficult to exactly pin down when Gaullism was first uttered, but since then it has been and continues to be a staple in French politics. I doubt de Gaulle ever referred to himself as a Gaullist. And finally as shown above, Putinism was coined in 2000, but one can’t imagine Putin or any of his lieutenants calling themselves adherents of Putinism. But you never know. Maybe they will someday.
One thing is clear about the origin of Putinism is that at least in the Anglophone world, we can mostly thank American conservatives for its existence. The question, though, is why Putin’s name got an “-ism” attached to it at all. Is it because Putinism really is an ideology? Is it really a means of governance? Or is it merely an empty signifier to neatly wrap every criticism of Putin into a nice package? Whatever it is, one thing’s for sure. What stands for a term of analysis often masks the political positions and assumptions behind its use. And in our mostly post-ideological world, attaching “-ism” to a name proves to be an effective method of damnation. For the ominous “-ism,” especially in the American mind, resurrects the dark terrors of the past and reinscribes them into our understanding of present and, subsequently, the future.Post Views: 84