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Transcript: Russia Without Putin

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This week’s podcast is a interview with Tony Wood about his excellent new book, Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War published by Verso.

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. 

If you like these transcripts and want to read more, then support them by becoming a patron of the SRB Podcast.

This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Tony Wood lives in New York and writes on Russia and Latin America. A member of the editorial board of New Left Review, he is the author of Chechnya: The Case for Independence, and his writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Guardian, n+1 and the Nation, among other publications.

I read the title of your book Russia Without Putin as having a double meaning. One, I think, is analytical. The need to look at Russia without focusing so much on Putin as a personality. Second, I read it as a projection that’s pointing to a future of Russia without Putin and trying to figure out what that might mean. What do you mean by this title, Russia Without Putin?

I think you’ve identified the two different things I had in mind. I guess, there are three components to it, because on the one hand, it derives obviously from the 2011-2012 protest against Putin’s return to the presidency, and the slogan “Rossiia bez Putina,” which has a particular meaning in the Russian context, and what I did was to appropriate it for my own analytical ends.

I think the two premises you’re talking about, the analytical one of how the West should understand Russia without focusing so much on the personality of Putin and the second one of projecting into the future, what that system is going to look like if it doesn’t have Putin on top of it. I see those two things as really interlinked and, that really, the West is not prepared for whatever comes after Putin because it sees the system as so bound up with his personality. So, one is a necessary step to the other.

Another component to your title that it’s also a critique of the fact most commentary about Russia focuses to the point of obsession with Putin as a personality, him as basically the alpha and omega of Russian state and society. Is your title also a critique and what is the importance of trying to understand Russia today without so much focus on Putin?

There definitely is a strong element of critique in the title too. One of the things I found while working on this book is I was reading the same book again and again and again. That every book on Russia has to have a biographical portrait of Putin as a guide to understanding how the current system works. And I’ve done it myself in this book because it is impossible to write a book about Russia without putting Putin himself front and center and his biography.

And I’ve tried to do it slightly differently and we can talk about where that leads me, analytically speaking. But, I think, the thing I find very counterproductive about the Western focus/obsession with Putin is that, aside from it being bad politics, focusing on personalities distracts from larger structural questions that are really the ones that weigh on peoples’ lives and make a real difference. That’s a general point that applies not only to Russia, but to everywhere else.

But also, it has a perverse narrowing and self-confirming effect, that the more Putin becomes indispensable to any description of Russia, the more every successive description of Russia has to have him in there. Otherwise people won’t understand what you’re talking about because you imagine every news report about Russia, even if it’s about reindeer herders in Yakutia, has to have some reference to how this relates to Putin and his power system. Is he in control of this remote outpost or not? And I think that’s really counterproductive. It just narrows the horizon within which people are framing what’s happening in Russia.

Of course, this is not to say that Putin is not important or that personalities don’t matter. I’m not trying to tilt toward some crude structuralist or anti-personal perspective. But I think the stick has been bent so far in the direction of personality that I thought it was time to push quite hard back in the other direction and maybe we’ll end up somewhere more reasonable as a result.

Most narratives of post-Soviet Russia emphasize a break between Yeltsin and Putin. And a lot of this I think is, whether recognized or not, very ideologically driven. It depends on what you think about the Yeltsin period and what you think about Putin and how they relate to one another. But your book stresses that there are continuities between the two periods. What are those continuities?

I see these two periods as successive phases in the evolution of a single system. While I’m trying to stress the idea of continuity, I should say I’m not equating the two or saying there’s an identity. It’s more a case of there’s enough commonality between the two to suggest that they should be grouped together as one thing rather than seen as fundamentally distinct, like as if there’s some great rupture. I think the core differences are really matters of style, in terms of personal leadership. There’s also differences of context, both geopolitical and socioeconomic that really mark them apart. There’s also the matter of luck, high oil prices. If Yeltsin had had the oil prices that Putin had, we’d be in a fundamentally different situation, I think.

A lot of the continuities I see are really more focused on the internal evolution of the system. I think that a lot of what people, certainly in the West, criticize Putin for certain kinds of authoritarian behavior, reining in the regions, control of the press, galloping corruption–all of these things were not only present under Yeltsin, but actually the foundations were laid during the Yeltsin years for what then developed under Putin. The clearest example I can think of this is the constitution. That was imposed after this slightly dodgy referendum in 1993. All of Putin’s presidential power derived from that moment where Yeltsin resolved the conflict with the Parliament by force.

If you want to undo this contrast between Yeltsin, the democrat, and Putin the authoritarian, all you’ve got to do is look at that moment and then you understand that in that particular moment when a liberal, or someone committed to a liberal free market transformation of Russia, when Yeltsin was in charge of this quite authoritarian constitutional setup, that was perfectly fine. When someone with a slightly different emphasis is placed in charge of the same structure, the West suddenly has a totally different attitude. But fundamentally, that structure, what Russian leaders were able to do is legally the same.

The other thing is, there are ways in which the Yeltsin/Putin system has evolved, but there’s an underlying commitment to the principle of private profit and the principle of capitalism that has not changed. I think the faces of the super-rich have certainly changed, the personnel, the lineup, and how they made their money. There’s a lot of different reasons at play there, but the fact is Putin has not overturned capitalism in Russia. It’s not a state socialist system. The degree to which he has reasserted the role of the state in the economy, in some ways, that’s what has caused panic in the Western financial press. Everyone has been up in arms about that, at least since the Yukos case, if not before. But really, I see that more as an adjustment of the model role than as a fundamental shift in the model.

Yeltsin/Putin period is one contentious debate, but the other important debate and one that you touch on repeatedly in your book is this question of the nature of Russian capitalism and its development in the post-Soviet period. How do you understand capitalism’s development in post-Soviet Russia?

I think one of the things that was very noticeable about discussions of capitalism in Russia itself is that there’s this assumption of a kind of abstract model that will eventually take root. That somehow, and I think this is also true, I mean, mainly true, of the Western advisors and analysts, but certainly true of many Russian liberals themselves. That there is this idea that there was this clean slate on which you could build a market economy from scratch and, therefore, anything that went wrong could be blamed on vestiges of the past that were somehow hanging around. There was this total, willful neglect of how capitalist systems are built in historical reality, involving actual people, and actual social relations. There is no capitalism in the abstract. It’s always historically specified.

One has to look at how that model was created, and very deliberately so, by the early Yeltsin government to understand what it is now. I spend a bit of time in one of the chapters on the Russian elite, because I think that close dependent relationship between private wealth and political power that came about through the processes of privatization, is really important to understanding how Russia works now. It was very clear from early on that the liberal reformers were really bent on pushing through their reforms because there was an urgency to smashing the state socialist economy, the planned economy, and dismantling it. And they really didn’t care in whose hands this property ended up. The priority was to create a layer of property holders whoever that was. And that was out of a commitment to this liberal idea of property holders as the foundation of a wealth generating system.

What was the impact on society of this slow collapsing of the Soviet system up until into the 2000s?

Seeing it as a process makes a lot of sense precisely because of this large systemic aspect to it. You can narrate the fall of the USSR as an event if you take a narrow enough perspective and look at what happened over the course of X period of weeks. But really, if you’re looking at it from a systemic perspective, you have to have a much larger time frame and possibly go back to the late Brezhnev period. And look at the slowdown of Soviet economy and the inability to overcome all of these bottlenecks and the flaws in the planned economy.

In terms of the social impact of the collapse, certainly the rapid dismantling of the planned economy had a huge social impact. One of the things that marks Russia out, I think, among post-communist states and certainly compared to Eastern Europe, is the degree to which it wasn’t really mass unemployment that resulted, although there was a lot of that. What happened more was mass underemployment. People were kept on the books at a factory and they would show up to work, but not get paid and they wouldn’t do anything for six months or a year, or whatever it was.

What you have in Russia is this process through which what is already a semi-ruined, especially industrial sector, is just limping on generating no real work and no real output, as far as I can tell. People are simultaneously having to earn a living doing something else. I put a lot of emphasis on a parallelism of old and new in Russia and I think this is one of the concrete ways in which you can see it. There were people who would go to a factory job for which they would not get paid, but they would still go because it was that job that entitled them to all kinds of social benefits, and housing, residency registration, and whatever it was. But to make money they would have to go and sell encyclopedias door-to-door or drive a cab or clean apartments, or whatever. There is this great social confusion generated out of that.

The other one is just materially. It had a sudden impact in terms of creating huge deprivation and, at the same time, huge inequalities. There’s suddenly a layer of incredibly wealthy people and, at the same time, new kinds of impoverishment that really hadn’t existed before. The scale of homelessness was just, not that it didn’t exist of course before, but it was just on a whole other scale. And again, there are empirical measures of that in terms of what peoples’ incomes were, malnutrition, health indicators, and increased mortality.

And then, in addition to that, or rather as part of how that manifests, I try and talk a bit about the social experience of this because, of course, you have new kinds of social actors appearing. Before the 1990s, no one had ever seen an oligarch or it was unusual to see shuttle traders or various kinds of private businessmen. The whole social landscape had also been transformed at the same time as you get these very raw economic differences appearing.

This analytical framework where you’re trying to decenter Putin raises the question: is there a way for us to understand Putinism without Putin, or at least a decentered Putin?

I tend to think there is. I think Putinism understood, not necessarily as a coherent ideology, but as, if you like, a social settlement, we can call it that, where the regime provides certain goods, and a certain set of expectations about how things are going to go and the population, broadly speaking, provides its democratic consent to allow that system to continue. I think there was, in the early Putin years, a distinct kind of settlement which was the promise of increased material prosperity, a recovery of national dignity in ideological terms and the idea that Russia would now be choosing its own developmental path. There are many more components too.

I think it was, at least at that point, a coherent shape. And I think the Medvedev years didn’t really have that. I think there was this idea of modernization which never really got off the ground. And I think it wasn’t really clear to what extent you could differentiate a Medvedev electorate from a Putin electorate, whereas I think it’s much easier to identify a Putin voter than with any other politician. So, in a sense, you can imagine that system as a coherent entity. I think after 2012 when Putin returns and he’s dealing with the fallout of the financial crisis, and at this point this is not a situation, given then global economic context, in which the government can guarantee increased income for everyone.

It has to have some other ideological set of emphases, at which point it takes much more of a nationalist turn without actually confiscating anyone’s assets or nationalizing anything at all. It’s still committed to a neoliberal model with some sort of statist tinges in key sectors, but ideologically it’s undergone a shift in a nationalist direction.

Broadly speaking, I think Putinism still has the same electorate as it did in the early 2000s. I think that’s been carried over and as the country has evolved, the Putin majority has gone along with that transformation. I think you could say there is Putinism, socially speaking. As to whether you can imagine Putinism without Putin, I think you can as long as that project is in place. You can imagine another person in charge of that same project and continuing and carrying forward with that social support base.