This weeks’ Russia Magazine column, “Historical Lineages of Putin’s Russian National Identity,”
Last week, Putin delivered a speech on Russia’s national identity at the 10thannual Valdai Club meeting. Though much of the speech reiterated central concepts Putin laid out in his 2012 Presidential campaign article on ethnicity, I was nonetheless struck by his remarks. Over the last week I’ve been talking about Slavophilism, Russian national awakening, and pan-Slavism in my late Imperial Russia class. Putin’s comments resonated with some of the same questions consuming literati in the mid-nineteenth century. In particular, I couldn’t help focusing on the Slavophile moments in Putin’s text despite its rather motley nature. Moreover, I couldn’t help hear echoes of Nikolai Danilevsky’s Russia and Europe (1869). I’ve been reading about Danilevsky’s notions of circular history, the uniqueness of Russian civilization, its incompatibility with the West, and Russia’s messianic mission for a lecture on pan-Slavism. I’m not saying that Danilevsky had a direct influence on Putin. I have no idea if Putin ever read Danilevsky’s text. Nor do Danilevsky’s and Putin’s text correspond exactly. Only, I claim, that some of the issues concerning the Russian idea in the nineteenth century remain unresolved today. Namely, the nature of Russian civilization, its relationship to the West, and its particular historical development and mission. Putin’s thoughts on these fall into a deep historical tradition on the nature of Russia’s national identity and how it’s realized.
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By Sean — 6 years ago
The Kremlin seems capable of creating two types of figures: heroes and martyrs. The production of heroes is crystal clear and requires no elaboration. Martyrs, however, are a different story because they provide adrenaline to political movements to galvanize their adherents, sanctify their positions, and strengthen their solidarity. Moreover, martyrs are so needlessly created, and the Kremlin, out of either ineffectiveness or incompetence, can’t seem to stop providing even its most retrograde political foes the fertile soil for their germination into impeccable flora. And that’s the thing; the path to martyrdom is always one of transformation, a cleansing ritual that turns the corrupted into the incorruptible, the self-interested into the selfless, the vulgar into the prosaic, and the invisible into the visible. Don’t believe me? Just ask the three young women of Pussy Riot.
Sure, some will note that a vast propaganda machine, mostly emanating from the West, plays an enormous role in the elevation of the Russian opposition to sainthood. This is true. But even still, the buck stops at the Kremlin, because it is Russia’s leaders who provide the initial baptismal waters with their often unnecessary heavy handedness.
It’s too soon to say if the latest defamation, search, interrogation, and possible criminal indictment of Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov will result in his martyrdom. But the placid surface of the baptismal pools is once again rippling. And be sure the steely pens of the international martyr machine are pulsating with ink waiting to shower Udaltsov with words of benediction.
As reported yesterday, the Russian authorities prompted by their own propaganda “documentary,” Anatomy of a Protest-2, searched the apartment of and interrogated Sergei Udaltsov, arrested his aide Konstantin Lebedev, and scoured the resident of Leonid Razvozzhaev, an aide of the State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev. The Left Front leader has since been released on recognizance, but an indictment is expected in the coming days. Today, a court foreshadowed this inevitability by lengthening Lebedev’s original 48 hour detention to two months. As for Razvozzhaev, he’s has gone underground to whereabouts unknown.
According to the latest, prospectors have opened a criminal case claiming that Udaltsov et al. were planning their own little coup of the Russian government funded with Georgian cum American money. Originally, this coup was to take place in Kaliningrad. But according to documents filed with the Basmmanyi Court, the plot was far more ambitious. “[The trio] and other undetermined persons have planned mass violent disorder, riots and arson with the use of firearms and explosive devices in the territories of Moscow, Kaliningrad, Vladivostok and other cities.” That’s not all. The court files also state that for Udaltsov, Lebedev and Razvozzhaev to carry out their scheme, “they planned to recruit 35,000 people to carry out mass disorder by means of SMS-messages.” Given the conspiracy’s expanding breath one might think that Udaltsov, Lebedev and Razvozzhaev were really Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev readying the Military Revolutionary Committee to seize the bridges, railways and telegraphic stations before carrying out their own October Revolution. What will the Russian authorities think up next? Implicate the trio in a plot to kill Putin, Medvedev, and other Soviet, err, Russian leaders?
All of this sounds ridiculous because, well, it is. Yet, the question that consistently boggles my mind is: Why? Why does the Kremlin persist in turning virtual political nobodies with little public stature into fodder for martyrdom? One easy answer is because Russian politics is a zero-sum game, and this all or nothing contest breeds authoritarian responses. Now while access to politics is circumscribed in liberal democratic states, and repression is freely used to squash dissent (i.e. the Occupy movement), these states still maintain the illusion of political inclusion. Not in Russia. Since he’s formally returned to the driver seat, Vladimir Putin has abandoned the political chimeras people like Vladislav Surkov understood were a vital technology of rule. In its place is a strategy, if one can even call it that, that is far blunter and forceful.
Another answer, which is not wholly disconnected from the first, is that Putin et al are really, really scared. They are scared partly because Russian politics is a zero-sum game, and partly because they know deep down they sit atop a weak state that makes their ability to manage Russian society tenuous. In this scenario putting out fires replaces governance and the stick supplants the carrot. Thus, I expect this siege mentality to keep on intensifying, and the fate of Udaltsov is just another indication of that trend. The only problem is that while siege mentality is good for extinguishing fires, the ashy remains makes fertile terrain for sprouting more and more martyrs.Post Views: 739
By Sean — 9 years ago
My post about Joachim Crima, the so-called “Volgograd Obama,” has received a lot of traffic thanks to Joshua Keating’s link to it at Foreign Policy. So given the interest in this Russian political novelty, I figured I’d do an update on the first Afro-Russian to run for public office.
The first articles I read about Crima suggested that his candidacy was a scheme of local politicians to potentially suck votes from United Russia. I still can’t figure out how this would be possible, and so far there has been no evidence to prove that Crima’s candidacy is merely a political gimmick. Russian political commentators seem baffled, viewing Crima’s campaign as something that would appeal to voters “for the sake of a joke” or as “an act of protest against Russia’s moribund political life.” Indeed, Crima’s being an outside is part of his appeal. As Rossiiskaya razeta found out, all the people they talked to were unified around one thing: a distrust in the government. Crima is also not some wacky oppositionist. It turns out that he’s been a member of United Russia since 2007, as one reader of this blog noted.
In fact, Joachim Crima’s biography could be held up as a kind of post-Soviet Horatio Alger. Crima left his native Guinea-Bissau twelve years ago for Russia. Like during Soviet times, Russia remains a place for Africans, Middle Easterners, and Asians to get a university education. Crima enrolled in the Volgograd Pedagogical Institute in the Natural Geography Department. It was there that he adopted the nickname Vasillii Ivanovich in honor of the hero in the film Chapaev. One wonders if Crima was aware that Vasilii Ivanovich is also the butt of many Russian jokes. Be that as it may, it was at the Pedagogical University where Crima, now Vasia, earned an education in chemistry and physics, and met his wife Anait, a native of Armenia.
After finishing his degree, Crima decided to remain in Russia and moved to Srednaya Akhtuba. There, he bought three hectares of land and became a watermelon farmer. To Americans, the idea of a black man becoming a watermelon farmer feeds right into some of the worst racial stereotypes. But the mythical black man-watermelon nexus might not really apply in Crima’s case. The truth is that Akhtuba is one the Russia’s main watermelon growing regions. And if Crima wanted to be a farmer, well, watermelons was a practical choice. This is not to say that Crima’s race didn’t play a role in his success. It was as a African watermelon seller that he became a local celebrity. As Trud writes, “The smiling dark-skinned seller attracted the attention of many to the point where extra publicity is unnecessary.”
So why did Crima decide to enter “big politics”? “I love to be in the public eye. I love being a leader,” he told Rossiiskaya gazeta. “I was the head of the parliament at school, a monitor in my high school back home and chaired the Guinea-Bissau student association in Volgograd province, and now I’ve decided to go into big politics.” That said, Crima is also aware of his potential place in history. “Money is not important for me. I don’t even know how much the head of a district gets paid. I’m interested in writing my name into history. And although my skin is dark, the district’s accountant will be white. And as for money, well my watermelon farm will feed me and my family. And if I have a bad harvest, I will work as a tutor as I usually do in winter. In addition to chemistry and physics, I know five languages–my native, Russian, English, French, and Portuguese. Now I practice my French and English at night because foreign reporters will be coming.”
But entering history and honest work is not his only thing that drives this Afro-Russian. Another one of Crima’s inspriations is none other than Vladimir Putin. “I’ve lived in Russia many, many years and I see how Vladimir Vladimirovich runs the country. I think that if the country had a hundred of such people like Putin, Russia would be the first in the world. I respect him very much and want to follow his example. He’s an excellent person, and a serious figure on the world stage.”
Indeed, Crima’s candidacy, which has yet to be finalized by the local electoral commission, has put him on his own little world stage. But not so much because of his political views. So far they remain cursory. In an interview with Agence France Press, Crima vowed to address the dire state of roads and drinking water in Serednaya Akhtuba. He also possesses a measure of democratic idealism. In response to questions about the seriousness of his candidacy and the uphill fight he faces, he said, “If this is a democracy, then why should I withdraw? Let the people decide!”
Crima’s promise to repair roads and clean up the local water supply and his admiration for Putin is all well and good but, frankly, it is his race that makes him a political curiosity. Russia isn’t exactly known for its racial tolerance, to put it mildly. One need only cite the headlines of Russian articles on the political outsider to get a sense of how Crima’s race is playing out. Rossiiskaya gazeta‘s headline: “The Leader of the Colored.” From United Russia’s news page: “Joachim Crima: Black on the Outside, White on the Inside.” There are also the countless references to Crima as Russia’s own Barack Obama and how if elected he promises to “toil like a Negro.”
And then there are the pictures of a smiling Crima holding watermelons.
As Crima himself admits, the travails of being a black man in provincial Russia are not easy. But he’s optimistic that they can be conquered. “When I first arrived to Srendaya Akhtuba, when people saw me for the first time they, especially women, crossed to the other side of the street,” he told Dni. “Now people know me and my watermelons. Many people approach me and say hello. The color of my skin has no meaning, time is simply needed for people to see me as the person that I am. If you have black skin, it doesn’t mean you are black on the inside. The main thing is that your thoughts are honest and people will understand you.” Nor is Crima concerned about the racial stereotypes about him. “If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people ‘negroes’ then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have to be proud of who you are,” he said in an interview with Agence France Press.
Crima’s political campaign is only beginning. To put things into further gear, United Russia held an online press conference today. For those non-Russian readers, I’ll try to provide some excerpts tomorrow.Post Views: 1,048
By Sean — 11 years ago
The Russian electoral season is already unfolding like a stage performance. Putin, who we might refer to as the Director, announced the date for his troupe’s first performance: the State Duma elections scheduled for December 1. Kommersant Vlast’ has a thorough breakdown of its prediction of how the 450 Duma seats will be divided. The first thing to notice is the expectation that the number of parties represented in the Duma will drop by 10 percent. This is no doubt a result of two factors. The first is the increase of the electoral threshold to 7 percent. This along is expected to cut out 10 or 11 parties alone. The other fact is multiple. Namely, that Russian politics are a complex business, and the revamp of the electoral threshold matters most for parties already waining in influence.
To explain this complexity, Kommersant’s Dmitiry Kamyshev provides eight factors (with the number of seats at stake for each) that will determine the Duma’s breakdown: Name recognition (140 seats), political influence (100 seats), war chest (70 seats), leadership (45 seats), flamboyancy (35 seats), airtime (25 seats), past victories (20 seats), and fulfillment of promises (15 seats). No party dominates in all eight. For example, you can’t think of the KPRF without Gennady Zyuganov’s bald dome or the LDPR without picturing Vladimir Zhirinovsky flaying his arms about. This alone will get each party 16 and 14 seats respectively. United Russia on the other hand has no face, except for maybe Putin’s, and he’s one foot out the door. That said besides leadership and flamboyancy, United Russia tops in all other categories giving them a predicted 245 seats. Just Russia comes in second with 85 and the KPRF and LDPR follow with 75 and 45 seats respectively.
But as everyone knows the State Duma elections are merely a dress rehearsal for the real performance. Russian Presidential elections are scheduled for March 9, 2008. The stars have all but been officially selected, with First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov leading the cast. The question is which role each will get. Last year, Kommersant reports, there were rumors that Ivanov would become the head of Just Russia, while Medvedev would lead United Russia. That makes sense writes Kamyshev since “the liberal lawyer Medvedev heading the right-center United Russia and the pro-state, pro-police Ivanov heading the left-center Just Russia” seems to correspond with political ideology. But now that Ivanov is heading in the polls, Medvedev’s starring role appears in jeopardy. Now Ivanov looks slated to lead United Russia, a move that also makes sense since “if United Russia was going to associate itself with one of the possible successors, it could only be with the one who was going to win.” Given the choice between ideology and consistency in performance, the latter wins every time. Russia is moving toward a two party system for sure, but it will be a while before Just Russia is ready for the center stage.
The only question is whether all this over planning will scuttle the authenticity of the performance. After all, manufacturing an election is easy, but making it manufactured and reflect the will of the people is a skill that I think only Western democracies have mastered. Perhaps with Putin’s keen directorial eye, the right amount of stage management, and a stellar cast, this electoral season will be Russia’s democratic coming out party. I know I will have my ticket in hand. There is nothing I like more than a good political drama.Post Views: 361