My new column for Russia Magazein, “Infantilizing Putin.” Here’s an excerpt:
Last week, The New York Times lamented the dearth of Russian specialists to comment on the crisis in Crimea. “As a result, Russia experts say, there has been less internal resistance to American presidents seeking to superimpose their notions on a large and complex nation of 140 million people led by a former K.G.B. operative with a zero-sum view of the world,” writes Jason Horowitz. Presidents aren’t the only ones making superimposition upon superimposition. The persistent caricature of Russia, and in particular, its president Vladimir Putin is alive and well. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, entering Putin’s mind, let alone understanding his logic, has become a booming industry. Everyone, it seems, has some sort of inner insight into Putin’s psychology. Even pop-psychologist Keith Ablow diagnosed Putin’s being as “inseparable from the manifest destiny of the country he leads.” For Ablow, Putin’s psychology is “one part nationalism, one part narcissism.”
Some of this armchair psychoanalysis comes from the fact that Putin seems unclear as to what his endgame is. The over the top propaganda coming out of Russia coupled with Putin’s own contradictory and confused press conference has people asking: Is he insane? Simply out of touch? Suffers from a Napoleon complex? Or is Putin increasingly isolated from the world around him, a kind of cloistered and lonely Tsar surrounded by a diminishing circle of confidants? An excellent article in the Times suggested just that. Putin’s Crimea move was made with the council of only a few officials and born of frustration and anger rather than a well thought out plan.
One main thread in these psychoanalytical portraits of Putin is to infantilize him and his behavior.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Two steps back, one step forward. It’s not the Watusi. It’s certainly not the hokey-pokey. Perhaps it’s a waltz. Whatever the dance step Vladimir Putin is leading Russia’s political future with, it’s certainly keeping everyone on their toes. Let’s just recap the last few weeks. Prime Minster Mikhail Fradkov resigns only to be replaced by a seemingly unknown technocrat and Putin ally Viktor Zubkov. This move caused many to immediately shoot Zubkov to the top of the successor list. Others were more cautious, seeing Zubkov’s becoming Prime Minister as simply a way to Putin to have an ace in the hole against the Kremlin clans. Zubkov is said to be an outsider of sorts and not beholden to any clan, that is of course if you don’t think Putin has a clan of his own. Further Zubkov, as the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, has access to what RFE/RL’s Victor Yasmann calls “a unique political weapon“: intimate knowledge about the legal and illegal flow of capital in and outside of Russia. In Zubkov, Putin has his own financial spy.
But Zubkov’s nomination was only the beginning. A new PM surely meant a new government, and the speculation over which fresh faces would inhabit the cabinet kept everyone on edge. But last week’s announcement proved hardly climactic. No one was surprised by the sacking of German Gref and Mikhail Zurabov and the removal of Vladimir Yakovlev, the head of Regional Development, made no stir since no one cares about regional development anyway. Most were surprised that Gref and Zurabov lasted so long. The appointment of two women, Tatyana Golikova to replace Zurbaov as Health and Social Development Minister and Elvira Nabiullina to take over for Gref as Trade Minister, caused some statements about the cabinet’s feminization. Who would have ever though Putin was a partisan for affirmative action. The Presidential cabinet got two new ministries, the revival of the Federal Fishing Agency to be headed by Andrey Krainy and a committee on youth, the head of which has yet to be announced. (I suspect Nashi’s Vasili Yakamenko will eventually fill this position.) On the whole, however, the big surprise was that there was no surprise, though according to Kommersant’s Andrey Kolesnikov Putin even kept his own ministers on pins and needles as to their future until the last minute.
Though the Russian government’s “reshuffle” was lackluster, Zubkov, surely seasoned by his years on the kolkhoz, already appears to be a force to be reckoned with. His first cabinet meeting began with a session of “criticism” for the government’s failures to implement reforms, infighting, and neglect of fulfilling regional requests for resources. Zubkov then pulled an old arrow from the quiver of Soviet governance and ordered his minister’s underlings to the provinces. Next, Zubkov made a tried and true Russian political move. He began an anti-corruption campaign, calling for the Duma to adopt an anti-corruption law that’s been languishing since 1992. As of now the Russian Criminal Code has no laws explicitly defining corruption. And though anti-corruption campaigns are usually no more than a populist ruse, (anti-corruption and anti-bureacratism were favorites in Soviet times), Zubkov might have actually scared the Russian elite into thinking that he’s serious. A few weeks ago Zubkov created the Investigation Committee under the Justice Ministry especially for investigating corruption. The Committee took its first casualty on last Thursday when a man dressed in black pumped three bullets, including one “control shot,” into Nazim Kaziakhmedov, a chief investigator on the Committee, as he left the Bakinskii Dvorik restaurant in northeastern Moscow.
Zubkov’s exhibition of a strong hand in governance only propelled his status as a possible successor to Putin. So far he’s deflected reporters inquiries, saying that wants to score some successes as PM before moving to something bigger. Assumed front runners Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev now seem to have taken a back seat in the presidential “chatter.” Even Putin threw his own curve ball or sorts. After praising Zubkov as “highly professional,” “a man of integrity with sound judgment, responsibility, and wisdom” and “a man of strong character and expensive experience” (platitudes that are sure to spark jealously in his inner circle), Putin contended that “there are at least five people can run for president and can be elected. It’s good that another person [Viktor Zubkov] has appeared. Russian citizens will have a selection of candidates to choose from.” Who the five are, besides Zubkov, he didn’t say. Interestingly, Boris Kagarlitsky thinks Putin is just winging it as a means to keep it interesting.
And here today we witness the newest Putinian dance step. United Russia’s party congress has begun, an event that will surely be overshadowed in the West by its fascination with political nobodies like Garry Kasparov. And lo and behold who is sitting at the top of United Russia’s Duma candidate list? Why it’s Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself! Putin gleefully accepted the nomination from the party in power. This of course immediately sparked questions about him becoming Prime Minister after the elections. “As far as heading the government is concerned – this is a quite realistic suggestion but it is still too early to think about it,” Putin answered. According to the Financial Times, while some might argue that Putin the Duma candidate is all part of an elaborate plot to bring back Putin the President in 2012 and thereby trampling Russian democracy for the umpteenth time, there is one class that will be happy: the vampires of the global financial class. “Irrespective of one’s view of Putin’s democratic credentials, markets respect the stability and prosperity he has brought to Russia, and should react positively to the latest development,” says Tim Ash, an economist at Bearns Steerns in London. And why wouldn’t it? Russia might be, in the words of Dmitri Trenin, a “very rough, brutal and cheerful capitalism”, but it is capitalist nonetheless. And the only capitalists that hem and haw about Russia lack of “democracy” are usually the ones losing their shirts. Lots and lots of people are making lots and lots of money, meaning that Putin is and will continue to be good for business. Having him close to the Russia’s political helm in the future will no doubt put many capitalists in Russia and abroad at ease. So if Putin wants to take one step forward after taking to steps back, there is no doubt in my mind that some will be urging him to take a few steps more.
By Sean — 8 years ago
I have little love for Russian liberals. Readers of this blog probably know that well. Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov in particular, as one can sense from my take down of their 2008 anti-Putin screed for the now defunct and sorely missed The eXile. I even giggled when Nashi threw piss in Nemtsov’s face.
The dynamic duo is back with a new Putin obsessed treatise, elegantly entitled Putin. The Results. Ten Years. So much for creativity. It is sure to get more media attention than it deserves. I have yet to read it, and probably won’t. I’m sure my eXile piece applies just as well to this one. According to reports in the Russian media, the text evaluates Putin’s decade long run and the tandem’s two year performance. Vedomosti writes that Nemtsov characterized the text this way on his blog:
In Russian society there are persistent myths imposed by official propaganda. There are many: the myth that Putin pacified the Caucuses and defeated terrorism, the myth about the increased birth and decreased mortality rates, the myth that he defeated the oligarchs and successfully solved the social problems of society. In our report all of these false claims are debunked with figures and facts from available sources.
Boring. Somehow I can’t help thinking that I’ve heard this song before. But, hey, I’ll let you be the judge. A million copies have been printed up and shipped off to Moscow and Petersburg.
Well, make that 900,000 copies. The Russian news is reporting that police seized a shipment of 100,000 copies in a traffic stop in St. Petersburg, for, get this “irregularities in the documentation for cargo.” Reports Gazeta, citing the police:
A truck with the MAN make with Smolensk plates was stopped by traffic police at 9:30 am on Shpalernaya Street (a Yabloko branch office is located there). The cop issued a ticket for the violation of the article 16.12 of the Administrative Code (the violation of traffic signals or road markings): Heavy vehicles are prohibited from entering the center of St. Petersburg without the proper permits,” the police department stated. “When the inspector went to check the load, it became clear that the invoice on the copies stated a Smolensk printing press, while the publishers imprint on the actual books was a the Moscow press. The goods will be temporarily detained and checked.
Not sure why the discrepancy between the invoice and the copies matters. Nevertheless, it was enough for the cops to pinch it. I can see tomorrow’s headlines: “Putin Impounds Critics.” Yep, because no one gets pulled over for traffic violations in Russia. Or harassed for not have the million stamps and forms needed to do anything. And, well, opportunists always have their shit together because they are, like, honest and principled just like us in America. One would think they would have their papers in order considering the big target Russian liberals have on their back. They do, after all, live in Russia. Despite how silly all of this sounds, we should score one for Nemstov and Milov. The cops just gave them the best advertising in town: claims of repression.
It’s funny how things become clearer in just a few hours. Now Gazeta.ru is reporting that the cops have finished their check of the 100,000 copies of Putin. The Results. Ten Years and dutifully shipped them off to the MVD’s Center “E” for inspection. For those who don’t know, Center “E” is the outfit devoted to combating “extremism.” Nemtsov and Milov may be a lot of things, but being extremists is definitely not one of them.
This means that my above cynicism is now dashed, making me actually think that something is indeed rotten in St. Petersburg. I hate it when the Russian authorities’ sheer idiocy and paranoia make me sympathize with the liberals. I just hate it.
And if you need more proof that this seizure is convenient, not to mention downright suspicious, check this out: It comes a mere day before the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Over the next few days, Medvedev is set to hobnob with businessmen from around the world to ensure them that Russia is worth their bucks. Apparently the chance that one of Nemtsov and Milov’s pamphlets falls into an unsuspecting businessman’s hands and they learn there’s mass corruption (shock!) in Russia is just too risky. As Dr. Smith used to say in Lost in Space, “Oh the pain. The pain.”
This whole incident also proves that Nemtsov can be right every once in a while. “In his opinion,” says Gazeta, “now the report will be read by more than a million people.” All too true. Score: Team Solidarity 2 : 0 Putin.
By Sean — 3 years ago
Back in 2013, I wrote a post examining at the numbers of people in the Stalinist gulag compared to the US prison industrial complex. The post was in response to the Adam Gopnik’s and Fareed Zakaria’s claim that the over 6 million people in the US are under “correctional supervision” was higher than in the Stalinist gulag. Following a series of charts that broke down the prison population under Stalin, I concluded:
[There was an] estimated 7.4 million people were under Stalinist correctional supervision in 1953, exceeding Zakaria’s and Gopnik’s 6 million for the United States. Again the numbers are probably higher since these they don’t include everyone in the Stalinist penal system.
Things get even more complicated when you consider the gulag population per 100,000 citizens. According to Eugenia Belova and Paul Gregory, the Soviet institutionalized population in 1953 was 2,621,000 or 1,558 per 100,000. When you include special settlements, the numbers jump to 4,301,000 or 2,605 per 100,000. This puts the 760 per 100,000 in the United States into perspective.
I’ve come back to this issue because I ran across Burckina-Faso’s LiveJournal post that compares the numbers of prisoners per 100,000 people in the USSR from 1930 to 1940 to that of the Russian Federation and the United States from 1992 to 2002. I don’t know the source for these numbers, but assuming they’re correct, they once again raise questions about the USSR, the Russian Federation, and the United States as carceral states. And politically important for the current Presidential race in the US, politically considering the US numbers cover the tenure of Bill Clinton and now candidate Hillary Clinton’s “superpredator” comment in 1996.
While Burckina-Faso is attempting to suggest the idea of “ghastly” Stalinist repression as “hysterical,” I honestly don’t understand how it wasn’t ghastly when the prisoner population per 100,000 in the Soviet Union increased 1125 percent (114.7 in 1930 to 1126.7 in 1938) during some of the most repressive periods of Stalin’s rule. Part of this steep rise is due to falling mortality rates—population fell while prison population rose—during those years. But, even those excess deaths can be mostly attributed to repression: collectivization, famine, forced population transfer, prisoner deaths, and executions.
Okay, sure, Burckina-Faso’s point is that the average prisoner population per 100,000 persons during these years are comparable: 564 in the Soviet Union, 647.5 in the Russian Federation, and 623 in the United States. This is indeed ghastly as is the sheer ghastliness of the fact that when you compare the US prison population with the Stalinist, it makes you go, “Hmmm . . .” Though the increase in the US prison population in the 1990s was in no way as drastic as in the USSR in the 1930s, it still went up by 34 percent under Mr. Clinton.
And what about the prisoner population in the Russian Federation in the 1990s? Surely some of this was inherited from the Soviet system. Still, the prisoner population per 100,000 increased by 16 percent in the 1990s. Still awful, for sure.
So perhaps the best way to take all this is not try to argue which state was just as or more repressive, but that they are all repressive but for different reasons, in different ways, using different methods. Ghastliness doesn’t require equivalence.