Susan Smith-Peter is an Associate Professor of History at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York where she specializes in Russian history beyond the two capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg, regional identity, and civil society. She’s the author of Imagining Russian Regions: Civil Society and Subnational Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia published by Brill.
Danger Doom, “Sofa King (Remix),” Occult Hymn EP, 2006.
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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: 322
By Sean — 2 years ago
Brian Whitmore, the Senior Correspondent in RFE/RL‘s Central Newsroom, covering European security, energy and military issues and domestic developments in Russia. He is longtime “Russia Watcher” and the author of the highly influential Power Vertical Blog and host of the Power Vertical Podcast. Before joining RFE/RL in 2007, he worked for eight years for the Boston Globe and was a political correspondent and columnist in Russia for the St. Petersburg Times and The Moscow Times.Post Views: 429
By Sean — 11 years ago
Seventy years ago today the infamous Operational Order No. 00447 was approved by the Politburo of the Soviet Union. The Order launched, according to the document, “a campaign of punitive measures against former kulaks, active anti-soviet elements, and criminals.” In the appending memo to Stalin’s personal secretary, A. N. Poskrebyshev, M. P. Frinovsky, then deputy commissar of the NKVD, wrote, “I ask that you send the decree to members of the Politburo for their vote, and please send an extract of relevant items to Comrade Ezhov.”
Dated 30 July 1937, the document outlines which groups would be subjected to “punitive measures,” how they would be carried out, and provided execution and arrest quotas for every oblast and autonomous republic.
The document split those subject to “punitive measures” into two categories. The document reads:
- “To the first category belong all the most active of the above mentioned elements [kulaks, former Whites, criminals, Mensheviks and other anti-soviet parties, fascists, religious sectarians, etc]. They are subject to immediate arrest and, after consideration of their case by the troikas, to be shot.
- To the second category belong all the remaining less active but nonetheless hostile elements. They are subject to arrest and to confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from 8 to 10 years, while the most vicious and socially dangerous among them are subject to confinement for similar terms in prisons as determined by the troikas.”
Quotas for the first category range from 100 (in Komi ASSR and Kalmuk ASSR, for example) to 5000 (in Western Siberia, Moscow oblast, and Azov-Black Sea). Estimates for the second category ranged from 300 (again in Komi and Kalmuk) to 30,000 (Moscow).
The quotas were merely guidelines for execution and arrest. Considering that they all end in zeros says that the Party had no idea how many “anti-Soviet elements” roamed the country. The quotas were merely estimates presumably made from local NKVD reports. The quotas give a total estimate of 50,950 in the first category and 167,200 in the second category. A grand total of 218,150 persons. The order essentially transfered almost all criminal proceedings to NKVD troikas in 1937-38. According to figures released by the Russian Government in 1995, troikas handed down 688,000 sentences or 87% of all criminal sentences in the USSR in 1937 and 75% in 1938. A total of 681,692 people were sentenced to be shot in 1937-38, with 92.6% of those sentences handed down by troikas.
What is interesting about the Order is where it placed the power to deem an individual (and/or their family members) subject to “punitive measures.” Troikas (three man commissions) were to comprise of commissars of the republic’s NKVD or by regional departments. The minutes of the troikas investigation were the sole legal basis for a person’s execution or arrest. The day to day implementation of the mass operations was essentially outside the purview of central organs. Stalin basically handed local NKVD agents the power to wipe out their local rivals. And a bloodbath ensued. Most of the victims of this blind terror were regular people, most without any political connections at all.
An English translation of Operational Order 00447 can be found in J. Arch Getty, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939, p. 473-480.Post Views: 765