Lilia Shevtsova, a fellow at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, called it a “bomb, which anywhere but in Russia would cause the country to collapse.” Writing in the New York Review of Books, Amy Knight called it “a devastating picture of Putin’s eight years in the Kremlin.” In the Daily Mail, Jonathan Dimbleby declared that if such information was released about Britain, it “would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation – if not the downfall of the government.”
What, pray tell, is this devastating toppler of governments? Why, it’s Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov’s Putin -The Results: An Independent Expert Report (2008).
Russia watchers might have already heard about the liberal dynamic duo’s breakdown of Russia after eight years of Putin. If you’ve never heard of them, Boris Nemtsov is the one-time “young reformer” deputy prime minister who used to make Western journalists and IMF officials swoon, while Milov is a former deputy oil and gas minister during Putin’s first term; both Nemtsov and Milov served Putin early on, and both eventually fell out of favor.
Their book’s back story involved political infighting, intrigue, and apparently produced a “hysterical reaction” in the Kremlin. Nemtsov and Milov’s account was said to be such a political bomb that Nemtsov was compelled to suspend his membership in the liberal Union of Right Forces party. “I didn’t want people who are in our party to suffer in any way from what is written in it,” Nemtsov recently told Ivanovo Novosti. The authors even claim that we are lucky that Putin – The Results ever saw the light. “Strong pressure from the Kremlin” made finding a distributor difficult and dashed their hopes to shower the masses with 100,000 copies. When all was said and done, only 5,000 were printed and the only place willing to sell it was the publisher, Novaya Gazeta, at its kiosk in Moscow. (Thanks to the internet a copy can be downloaded at nemtsov.ru and a rather rushed and poorly edited English translation is available on the anti-Putin windbag blog La Russophobe.)
With all the radiant praise, political intrigue, and apparent efforts to squash its publication, I was really expecting this book to blow me away. I was prepared for a complete conversion to Nemtsovism. After all, here are two Russian political insiders who probably have enough dirt to really tar and feather Putin for good. Indeed, Putin – the Results tries to be that kind of brutal screed, but sadly, it falls way short. Though Nemtsov and Milov promise that the information they divulge is shocking, what you get instead is just a well-worn flip-flop of the official Putin line. All of the information they provide is an inversion of the Russian state’s propaganda.
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Sergei Mironov, the leader of Just Russia, calls it “Socialism 3.0”. An interesting choice of words considering that this year marks the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Anniversaries tend to function as both remembrance and rebirth, and the talk of “socialism” at Just Russia’s party congress might certainly be a rebirth of sorts. Even if the revival of “socialism” in Russia might simply be political verbiage rather than possessing any real material content.
Be that as it may, what is clear is that talk of “socialism” is a way for Just Russia to position themselves politically as Russia’s left wing alternative to the Communist Party. To see this all one has to do is peek into Mironov’s historical positioning of Just Russia in the “history” of socialism. In his 30 minute speech to congress delegates he spoke of how the Russian Revolution ushered in Socialism 1.0. This version was something called “war socialism”. This was later countered with Socialism 2.0, a western intervention, presumably to quell the attractiveness of version 1.0 among its populations, that was more “humanitarian.” Both of these, however, “proved to be unsustainable and inviable.” Now Mironov and his party are going top all those with “Socialism 3.0”. Not only will this socialism be the most humanitarian to date, it will do so by recognizing that the “socialist idea is supported by not only economics, but also cultural endeavors of our people. We are for a dignified and secure life for Russians.” Judging from this rhetoric, I fail to see what the upgrade features 3.0 portend to offer.
It doesn’t take a keen observer to notice how all of this sounds familiar. So much that Svetlana Goriacheva, former Communist Party member and now State Duma deputy for Just Russia, made a point to emphasize that Just Russia’s platform is different from the Communist Party’s.
But Just Russia can split hairs over this “socialism” and that “socialism” all it wants. The truth of the matter is that the party, which is nothing more than a Kremlin creation, is there to gradually whittle away at the Communist Party’s electorate. After all, Kremlin doesn’t call it “managed democracy” for nothing, and while many seek to dismiss the notion as simply ideological hot air, there is something very real in the concept.
What is “managed democracy”? Its meaning is right there in its name. It means that in the eyes of Team Putin, the Russian State will erect the building blocks for a stable democratic system that many Western states enjoy, but took decades to develop. As a great power swimming in a sea of “democratic states” Russia can’t afford to waste time taming the groundswell of democracy from below, as say the United States did to its many labor and civil rights struggles of the 20th century, by subsuming little “d” democracy back into the hegemonic machine of big “D” democracy. Such efforts require tolerating the chaotic and sometimes unpredictable nature of social movements long enough for them to fizzle out and reside themselves to work within the system rather than against it. The Russian elite is clearly not ready, or at least confident enough in their power, to give a little in the short run for grander riches in both power and money in the long run. Since the democratic lie can’t be formed organically, it must be manufactured from above.
In this sense, then, the architects of Russian democracy are working from a political position akin to Alexander Gershenkron’s ideas about the benefits of economic backwardness. Here the Russian state is privy to all the bells and whistles that most “mature” democratic states possess and use so effectively to keep their populations gleefully bathing in their own repression. Mass media, the internet, political PR firms, consultants, advertising, pundits, spokespeople are all available in Russia to package and repackage democracy as a slick, smooth, and shiny object, all consumable in one bite, or at least in one sound bite. If postmodern life is a characterized by a litany of single servings, then there is nothing to suggest that “single serving democracy” can’t be one of the choices available at the smörgåsbord of affective chimeras that constitute the modern political subject. With this in mind, if “democratic backwardness” is truly an advantage, then the Russian elite’s ability manipulate democracy’s most advanced technologies to overcome that backwardness might prove to be nothing less than revolutionary.
This is where the Just Russia’s “Socialism 3.0,” Nashi’s DMD militias, the fiction of the “specter of colored revolution,” Zubkov’s nomination, “Operation Successor,” the demonization of Berezovsky, Litvinenko, Other Russia (as if they have any power), the curtailment of NGOs, the Public Chamber, and many, many other forms of “democratic management” all enter the picture. All of these little pawns are put into motion with the hope that democracy will function in Russia like it does elsewhere else–a predictable, well oiled machine where the people are made to believe that they do the choosing, when in reality the range of choices is no more diverse than one between Coke and Pepsi.
This is by no means to suggest that Russia is any less democratic than their Western counterparts. It’s that the mechanisms for realizing democracy in Russia are much more visible, harder, and violent. With that in mind, as Mironov announces “Socialism 3.0” as part of global history of socialism, one can’t help wonder what political upgrades “managed democracy” looks to bequeath upon the world.
Putin must love it when a plan comes together. With around 85 percent of precincts reporting, United Russia has captured an albeit predictable landslide. The numbers break down as follows:
- United Russia: 63.2 percent
- Communist Party: 11.7 percent
- Liberal Democratic Party: 8.4 percent
- Just Russia: 8 percent
- Other Parties: 8.7 percent
The percentage scraps leftover went to parties like Yabloko and Union of Right Forces who didn’t garner the needed 7 percent to make the cut. And while the losers will scream foul, the winner, United Russia, will be able to take their victory as a sign that the population supports their consolidation of power. For Russia’s fledgling liberal parties, the election engenders the old Leninist dictum: What is to be done?
The liberals will certainly try to postpone dealing with this question until after the Presidential Elections in March. But after that it seems that they will have to honestly evaluate their political future. Will they continue as before? Will they make a strategic merge and pool resources and constituencies? Or will they decide that once again liberalism has no future in Russia and for the time being, it might be better to grease the system from the inside. If the latter course is taken, some will certainly abandon political principle and join United Russia. Others will piggyback on Just Russia and hedge their bets that the Kremlin created opposition party has a political future ahead of it.The Communists of course have the most to lose in all this. In response to the polls, Gensek Gennady Zyuganov claimed that the “direct helpers and sidekicks of United Russia”–the Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia–siphoned off his party’s votes. There may be an element of truth in that. Plus it seems that Zyuganov plans to challenge the election results in court. “This is not a parliament, but a branch of the Kremlin, a department of the government,” he asserted. The Party’s lawyer Vadim Solovyev stated that the “barrage of violations exceeds all acceptable norms.” This of course makes one wonder what electoral corruption looks like when it falls within acceptable norms.
And electoral corruption there was. Despite the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) Central Asian rep Kimmo Kiljunen’s insistence that there would be no “ballot rigging.” “I see law and order and I see people going to vote,” he said. Well, in a sense he’s right if you consider the elections he normally monitors in Central Asia. Russia’s elections must looks like shining beacons of the democratic process compared to those.
Still, even if Kiljunen’s special perspective is considered, there can’t be any denial of electoral malfeasance. The press was flooded with incidents over the last week. To make sure everything went as planned, the last day of campaigning was coupled with the police seizure of the entire press run of Arkhangelskii obozrevatel. The Central Electoral Commission claimed that the paper violated electoral law because it published voter surveys in its Friday addition. Election law forbids the publication of polls five days before voting. According to the paper’s editor Oleg Grigorash the seizure was spearheaded by Arkhandelsk mayor Alexander Donskoi “so that all information about the disgraced governor and also materials about the upcoming Duma elections were not revealed to the citizens of Arkhangelsk.” In Kransodarsk, police raided the offices of SPS. SPS activists barricaded the door to save them from the police. Why did the police storm the offices? They never found out. I wonder if these kinds of incidents are what the Moscow Times means when it claims that “regional committees were ordered to resort to any means necessary, including fraud, to ensure that United Russia won 70 to 80 percent of the vote.” If the electoral returns now cited are any indication, once again the regions did not fulfill the plan. They should have all followed Ramzan Kadyrov’s lead. United Russia scored 99 percent of the vote in Chechnya.
But now its all over. And no one was happier than Putin himself. “Thank god the election campaign is over,” he told reporters after voting with wife in tow around 1 pm. Turn out was high. Around 60 percent of the 108 million registered voters cast votes. Two voters, however, took the opportunity to nullify their ballots. Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, amid a crowd of reporters, crossed out their ballots and wrote in “Other Russia.” “I voted against all because the authorities deprive the citizens of Russia their constitutional rights,” Kasparov said after dropping his self-disqualified vote in the ballot box. I’m sure in this instance that the authorities were happy to see Kasparov and Limonov do their job for them. What’s next for the dynamic duo? Another protest, of course, today 3 December, whimsically titled “The Funeral of Elections.”
Of course, Nashi’s exit polls lacked any surprise. 20,000 pro-Kremlin youths calculated that 61.88 percent of vote went for United Russia, almost pegging the official count to the number. With accuracy like that , it’s no wonder then never managed to erect those tents to fight off would-be colored revolutionary scoundrels.
Lastly, I think this Putin joke sums up the whole mess:
Putin calls his mother on the phone and says: “Hello mama. It’s me, Vladimir. I won the elections”. Putin’s mother responds:
“Really? Honestly?”. “Mama,” Putin answers. “Can you please not nag me about that.”
Just think. This election was just a dress rehearsal for March. Then, the gloves will really come off.
The 3 March issue of the Nation has two reviews of four recent books on Soviet history. The first review, “The Ice Forge,” written by Jochen Hellbeck, examines Lynne Viola’s Unknown Gulag and Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers. Viola’s book chronicles the deportation of Soviet “kulaks” during collectivization. About it Hellbeck writes, “The Unknown Gulag, is an indictment of the utopian folly and criminal neglect of Soviet officials, and a moving account of human suffering.”
Similarly, Figes text is an exploration into private life under Stalin’s rule. “Reading The Whisperers,” Hellbeck states, “one comes away with a powerful sense that stigmatization and self-reinvention were central, indeed defining, attributes of the Soviet experience for many Russians of rural as well as urban backgrounds.” Figes has set up a website for the book which allows visitors to access the many interview he had conducted for his study. Despite a few translated interviews, unfortunately the bulk of them remain in Russian making audience access is limited. One can only hope that Figes will have the funds and desire to translate more of them.
I think this observation by Hellbeck is quite interesting:
As I read the interview transcripts on Figes’s website, I was struck by how, in at least a few cases, the subjects appear to have been treated to a rather aggressive form of questioning about their thoughts and feelings in Stalin’s time. Yet one interviewee, Dmitry Streletsky, would not yield to these pressures and insisted on his own, decidedly moral, reading of his life under Stalin. Streletsky could have leapt from the pages of Lynne Viola’s book. He was born into a family of peasants who were persecuted as kulaks and exiled to a special settlement in the Urals. The death rate in the settlement was staggering. Streletsky relates how his single most important desire, to prove he was a Soviet citizen like everyone else, was constantly impeded. The Memorial worker interviewing Streletsky understands this to mean that he was driven by a fear of punishment:
Q: Did you fear that they would punish you [for your kulak origins]?
A: There was shame, and there was my conscience, it wasn’t just about the punishment, but about these things.
Q: But you also feared that they might punish you?
A: Who knows? I had doubts, yes doubts. I didn’t feel fear,
Q: And that they would punish you, right?
A: That they would punish me and all the rest. Fire me from work….
A few sentences later Streletsky’s interview partner returns to the same subject: “Tell me, please, what or whom did you fear more, the NKVD or the commander [of the settlement]? Were you afraid?” Streletsky’s response: “Listen, I didn’t feel any fear.
Streletsky then talks about how he dreamed of joining the Communist Party throughout the years of his exile. When he describes his disappointment about being turned down for party membership in 1952, his voice shakes with emotion, the transcript notes. The exchange between Streletsky and his incredulous interrogator is revealing, for it discloses not only Streletsky’s moral reading of his Soviet experience but also the gap that lies between him and the interviewer, who adheres to a cynical view of Communism more characteristic of younger generations of Russians.
In the second review, “Revolutionary States,” veteran Soviet scholar Ronald Suny tackles Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks in Power is the third in trilogy of arguably the best scholarly study of the Russian Revolution. Among Rabinowitch’s many themes, Suny notes that the central issue in this volume is: “Why did a democratic revolution based on grassroots councils and committees turn into a dictatorship that employed state terror against its opponents, real and imagined, within months of its coming to power?” A haunting question indeed.
The second book subject to Suny’s examination is Shelia Fitzpatrick’s Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia. Tear Off the Masks!, the only of the four books featured which I’ve read, is a collection of articles that Fitzpatrick has published over the last fifteen years on the subject of imposture, denunciation, social identity, and coping in 1930s Soviet Russia. It is this thematic concentration that allows Suny to conclude from Fitzpatrick’s fifteen articles that her notion of the “quintessential Soviet” is “a shrewd manipulator able to adapt to shifting opportunities, maneuver through ever-present dangers and “con” the authorities when necessary.” It is this notion of Soviet citizens as ultimately conscious, rational individuals who always knew what they wanted and how to get it is where I part with her text. In parts, Fitzpatrick’s book reads like the liberal individual triumphant, a move that borders on placing her subjects above the conditioning power of History itself.
Much of Fitzpatrick’s reductionism is partially born in a historiographical attack on what she calls the “Soviet subjectivity school.” I could never understand the propensity to ascribe schools in Russian historical studies, especially to ones like the so-called “Soviet subjectivity school” which have no more than two or three scholars attached to them. Neverthless, such ascription serves many, especially as they try to carve out an island of difference within an mostly academic sea of similitude.
The contours in Soviet historiography aside, the real tragedy is that Fitzpatrick’s effort to undermine Hellbeck’s notion of a illiberal Soviet subject, (Hellbeck and Israeli historian Igal Halfin are recognized as the theoretical hydra of a Foucaultian notion of the Soviet self), leads her to posit an equally reductionist view of the self that the “Soviet subjectivity school” has similarly, and often unfairly, been criticized for. But such is the outcome when one rejects the notion of theory altogether. Such declarations mask the fact even the most empirically based analyses are steeped in some theoretical assumption about the lives subject to them.
A study that somehow captures the inner contradictions of life under Stalin that goes beyond Soviet citizens as either dupes or tricksters is still waiting to be written. My methodological position would be an exploration into the dialectical braiding of the two poles. But that is a whole other story that is still in the making.