Marc Bennetts is a British journalist who has been living in Russia for almost two decades. He writes for Newsweek, The Times (of London), and Politico, as well as other US and British newspapers and magazines. He’s the author of I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War on Russia’s Opposition published by Oneworld. You can follow him @marcbennetts1.
Cows, “Sexy Pee Story,” Sexy Pee Story, 1993.
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By Sean — 3 years ago
Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at OpenLeft.ru. Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.
But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.
As the editors of OpenLeft.ru write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.
Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year
The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.
The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.
In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.” The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.
This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”
The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.
Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.
The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.
It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.
The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.
The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.
By Sean — 9 years ago
Yesterday, December 1, was 75 years since the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the first secretary of the Leningrad Party Organization, and Stalin ally. It was on the night of December 1, 1934 that a certain Leonid Nikolaev, a disgruntled party worker, shot Kirov in the secretary’s third floor office. Nikolaev was immediately caught and interrogated under Stalin’s personal supervision. He was executed shortly thereafter.
Rumors have been circling for years as to what Nikolaev’s motives were. Some have suggest that Kirov was having an affair with Nikolaev’s wife. Others have suggested that he had a personal or work beef with Kirov. These questions remain mostly unanswered. Partly it is because they are unanswerable. But also because the majority of historians believe that Nikolaev did not act alone. For them, Stalin was the main culprit and wanted to get rid of Kirov because of his popularity. Since Kirov has been held up as a “moderate” and even “opponent” to Stalin. Nikolaev, therefore, was merely a patsy in a more sinister plot on the part of the vozhd to justify the use of terror against his enemies, real or imagined.
The idea that Stalin had ordered Kirov’s murder was not solely concocted by historians. According to NKVD reports, it was also one of the most widespread rumors at the time. But it wasn’t the only one circulating around. As Matthew Lenoe noted in an article on the historiography of the murder in the Journal of Modern History, rumors ranged from Leningrad NKVD chief F. D. Medved or his number two Mikhail Chudov personally committing or ordering Kirov’s assassination, to German, Finnish, Polish, or Turkish secret agents carrying out the plot, to speculation that a worker angered by the recent cuts in bread rations did Kirov in. Others thought that the killing was part of a larger plot of murder Maxim Gorky, Lazar Kaganovich, and the German Communist leader Ernst Thaelmann. But the idea that Stalin was behind it all swirled and swirled from mouth to ear, into exiled socialist commentary, on to the pages of defectors’ and so-called confidants’ tell-all memoirs, until it reached scholarly dictum through its reproduction ad nauseum by historians.
A minority of historians, most interestingly Oleg Khlevniuk and Alla Kirilina, who are no Stalin apologists and based their research on new archival evidence, have argued that the Stalin as culprit is “almost entirely myth,” according to Lenoe. The debate continues to rage, however, and will probably go on forever. But as Lenoe notes, ” In the end it does not matter for our overall understanding of Soviet history whether [Stalin] plotted Kirov’s assassination or not. There are far more important questions that need answering in the field.”
Indeed. Whether Stalin actually ordered the hit on Kirov doesn’t erase the fact that regime’s response to the assassination was a blind fit of violence that led to the arrests and execution of hundreds, if not thousands, in the weeks following, culminating in the eventual arrest, trial, and execution of Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the so-called “Moscow Center.” The lives of hundreds of thousands of others followed. There is also no doubt that Stalin used the Kirov’s assassination to his political advantage to eliminate his political opponents. We don’t need to pin the Kirov murder on him to recognize that.
Perhaps, the biggest lesson of the Kirov murder was not its use by Stalin from 1936-38 to justify terror. The lesson is in the quick adoption of “On Amending the Present Union-Republic Codes of Criminal Procedure” or the so-called Kirov Law on December 1, 1934, that gave terror legal justification. The law was as follows:
To amend the present Union Republic codes of criminal procedure with regard to investigation and trial of cases of terrorist organizations and terrorist acts against the functionaries of Soviet power:
- Investigation in these cases shall be concluded in not more than ten days.
- The indictment shall be handed to the accused 24 hours before the trial.
- The cases shall be tried without the parties present.
- There shall be no cassational review of the judgments or acceptance of petitions for clemency.
- The sentence of the supreme punishment shall be executed immediately upon rendering judgment.
This law is ominous in its brevity. It is this law that was the first legal step to wage terror. What the law giveth, the law taketh away. So in the end it is not Kirov’s assassination that should be remembered but how such events can provide the justification for extraordinary measures to be legally enacted. It is a reminder that the “state of exception” is always enacted by the sovereign in an attempt to preserve the “public good.”
By Sean — 11 years ago
Yesterday Putin was running late to a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. The reason why his limo zipped from northern Moscow to the Kremlin? As Kommersant commentator Andrei Kolesnikov reveals the President’s tardiness was because he was recording an address to the nation to be aired on 29 November on Ostankino TV.
Over the last week, Putin has been waging an aggressive political campaign for United Russia. The high point came the other day when he addressed a crowd of 5000 supporters at the Luzhniki sports stadium. He castigated the Russian opposition as “jackals” feeding off Western money (Who did he mean here? The Communists? Or does it even matter?) and promoted the UR’s commitment to economic and political stability. The state run Channel One devoted much of its news time hyping the speech.
The essence of next Thursday’s address will contain “almost nothing new” predicts Kolesnikov. In it, Putin will most likely clarify his relationship to the Party of Power, which he is still not officially a member, and continue to promote its record on stability. Most importantly, is that the address signifies the increasing attempt to portray Putin not as the President of Russia but as a candidate for United Russia. The fact that the address was recorded away from the Kremlin is symbolic of this.
But all of this reveals a possible emerging tension for Putin’s future, which as of now remains unknown. He seems to be straddling between being a politician where he represents United Russia and stand above politics as such and represent Russia as a whole. Its apparent that Putin sees himself in regard to the former. Last week on a campaign visit to Krasnoyarsk, he hit United Russia with, “The party has no stable political ideology or principles for which the overwhelming majority of members are ready to fight. … And, as a rule, being close to those in power, as United Russia is, all kind of crooks try to latch on to it, often with success.” He then went on to suggest that without him, United Russia has nothing. Brutally honest, but correct.
Then there is the effort to make Putin a “national leader”–a sort of quasi-constitutional monarch that stands above politics (Are we seeing the beginnings of an October Manifesto redux?). A kind of elder statesman who still commands a tight grip on the reigns of power and influence. His remarks in Krasnoyarsk also suggested that he seeks to stand above political parties and represent the country and its people. Citing the chronic Russian problem of the disconnect between power and people, Putin said, “So if people vote for United Russia, whose list I head up, that means that they trust me, and that means that I will have the moral right to call all those who will be in both the Duma and the government to account for implementing the decisions that have been mapped out today.”
Perhaps in next week’s address Putin will give a better idea of which he intends to be. Or would it better for his own power to straddle the two? To stand above Russian politics, while keeping a planted foot in its structures? Whatever it will be the one, the other, or a flexible combination of the two, one things for sure, Putin’s revolution will “stay the course” as they like to say in America.