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The People’s Authoritarian: How Russian Society Created Putin

By  | Foreign Affairs

In 1839, the French aristocrat Astolphe Louis Léonor, better known as the Marquis de Custine, traveled to Russia to understand “the empire of the Czar.” Competing with his compatriot Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of American democracy, Custine produced a travelogue that was also an analysis of “eternal Russia.” Russians excelled at submission, Custine believed. Dissidents were dispatched to Siberia, “that indispensable auxiliary of Muscovite civilization.” Despotism at home kindled the desire for empire abroad. “The idea of conquest,” Custine wrote, “forms the secret aspiration of Russia.”

More than anything, Custine was overwhelmed by the artificiality of imperial Russia. “The Russians have everything in name, and nothing in reality,” he wrote. He called its princes “false and crafty” and deemed the country “better served with spies than any other in the world.” A conservative, Custine began his trip as an advocate for a French-Russian alliance, a union of Christian autocrats. His trip changed his mind about which major power France should befriend: “Everything which tends to hasten the perfect agreement of French and German policy is beneficent.”

Many of Custine’s conclusions would not seem out of place in American or European analyses of contemporary Russia. Current EU policy toward Moscow, based on the French-German alliance that Custine advocated, presumes precisely the Russian duplicity and danger that he described.

Serhii Plokhy, Shaun Walker, and Masha Gessen, the authors of three recent books on Russia, walk, perhaps unconsciously, in Custine’s footsteps.They rely on history and direct observation to explain eternal Russia and to chart the enigmas of its statehood, its foreign policy, and its president, Vladimir Putin. They explore Putin’s recipe for despotism: conjuring a glorious Russian past from the rubble of Soviet and prerevolutionary history, presenting himself as the apogee of this past, and exerting his power as a strong ruler blessed by fate.

Yet all three books, stimulating and insightful as they are, bypass the problem that has most vexed Western policy since 2014. The psychology of Putin, the ideology of his regime, and the machinery of the Russian state and military have received exhaustive attention in the West. The Russian people, however, remain poorly understood. Like many Western analysts (and like Custine before them), Plokhy, Walker, and Gessen lean on the motif of Russia as a place where nothing is real, a Potemkin village built on ancient myths and postmodern memes where the nation must be willed into being by the state. In their portraits, Russia is defined by the state’s grip on society. What they miss is that society itself has a grip on the state. In Russia’s future, this embrace will prove the decisive factor.

PARADISE LOST

In Lost Kingdom, Plokhy examines how Russia built an empire through ideological artifice. In the early modern era, Russia needed to justify its westward expansion, so it invented a “myth of origins” that claimed Moscow as an heir to Kievan Rus, a mystical Slavic and Orthodox Christian federation, and designated the city the third Rome, after Rome itself and Constantinople. This lost kingdom of Rus coincided roughly with modern Belarus, eastern Ukraine, and Russia west of the Urals. In the eighteenth century, when Catherine the Great’s empire spread into Poland, this myth evolved into a policy of enforced uniformity. Ethnic Belorussians, Russians, and Ukrainians were all labeled one people, with a common Orthodox religion and a single history.

The revival of Rus was a lost cause from the outset, Plokhy argues. Although Russian Slavophiles were willing to accommodate Belorussian and Ukrainian national feeling, the makers of Russian foreign policy were not. Their pursuit of a homogeneous empire imposed a choice on Belorussians and Ukrainians: become Russian or embrace an independent Belorussian or Ukrainian identity. As “the most egalitarian and democratic of the Slavs,” Plokhy writes, Ukrainians were open to a partnership with Russia but not to Russian domination. The imperial push for homogeneity fueled Ukrainian nationalism—until World War I intervened.

After the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the tsarist dynasty and ended the Russian empire in 1917, Vladimir Lenin concluded that the greatest threat to the unity of the new Soviet state was Russian chauvinism. He proposed transferring power from Moscow to newly established Soviet republics on the former empire’s periphery, seeking a “voluntary union of peoples” to accommodate non-Russian national sentiment. When Lenin died, in 1924, his successor, Joseph Stalin, adopted this model in theory. But in practice, he incorporated Russian chauvinism into the new Soviet empire, a confederation on paper but not in fact. By the 1980s, the language and culture of the entire Soviet Union were on their way to Russification. Yet Lenin’s vision did have lasting effects. Because the Soviet Union was not a single Russian state and because it was not a Russian empire in name, Russians had to create an identity “separate from the imperial one,” Plokhy writes. “Almost by default, Lenin became the father of the modern Russian nation.”

This unstable arrangement ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which led to the full independence of Belarus and Ukraine. For Russians, the existence of a Ukrainian nation was uncomfortable evidence that their lost kingdom was truly lost. Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine. That is why, Plokhy suggests, Putin seized Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 after protests toppled a Ukrainian government that had leaned toward Russia. Plokhy does not think Russia will stop there. In his view, Moscow’s imperial instinct presages further conflict and “threatens the stability of the whole East European region.”

Walker, a journalist for The Guardian, offers a similar diagnosis of Russian imperialism in The Long Hangover. The Soviet collapse traumatized the Russian people, he writes, and rather than heal the trauma, Putin and his government “exploited it, using fear of political unrest to quash opposition, equating ‘patriotism’ with support for Putin, and using a simplified narrative of the Second World War to imply Russia must unite once again against a foreign threat.”

Walker details several of the paths not taken toward a Russia that might have been more accommodating of Western liberalism. One was Russia’s failure to undertake a full-scale reckoning with the crimes of the Stalin era. Putin’s government has worked to expunge from public memory the gulag, Stalin’s Great Terror, and the complicity of ordinary Russians in the killing. It has also avoided taking responsibility for the Soviet Union’s other crimes, such as the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars during World War II or the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.

Unable to deal with its actual past, the state has turned to celebratory myth. In 2005, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti created and popularized an orange and black Saint George’s ribbon, based on imperial Russia’s highest military decoration and intended to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. In 2008, the government revived Soviet-style military parades, featuring heavy weapons. Walker fears that Russia has dealt with its post-Soviet hangover by drinking from the cup of Soviet nostalgia.

That theory leads him to an explanation for the war in Ukraine that is at odds with Plokhy’s. Where Plokhy stresses the romance of empire and eastern Slavic unity, Walker puts “the Kremlin’s cynicism” in the foreground. Having reintroduced the Russian people to the idea that victories abroad were central to Russia’s cohesion, Putin could not limit himself to Stalin’s victory in World War II. He needed a triumph of his own. With the annexation of Crimea, Putin got his wish.

Hollow triumphs are no less a theme in Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History. Her book is both a sweeping attempt to capture the last 40 years of Russian history and a personal reckoning. Gessen was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. She returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union eager to cover her country of origin’s “embrace of freedom and its journey toward democracy.” Once there, she encountered a less heartening story: “Russia’s reversion to type on the world stage.” The book, which follows the lives of seven Russians, recounts a battle of ideas. Most of her subjects are agents of progress striving not just for democracy but also for a modern Russian culture enlightened by the social sciences.

Soviet society “had been forbidden to know itself,” Gessen maintains. A few cracks in the mass ignorance began to appear during glasnost and perestroika, the period of limited reform and opening that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev inaugurated in the 1980s. At their best, Gorbachev and other reformers sought “to restore thought and knowledge to the land,” Gessen writes. In the 1990s, the children of these reformers brought polling, sociology, psychology, and LGBT studies to Russia. Their aim was to transform Homo sovieticus—whose psyche was hemmed in by “obedience, conformity, and subservience”—into the autonomous, informed, and self-aware citizen of a true democracy.

On the other side were reactionaries such as the philosopher Alexander Dugin, the only Putin supporter among Gessen’s subjects. Inspired by Eurasianist thinkers such as the ethnographer Lev Gumilyov, who trumpeted the “essential nature of ethnic groups,” Dugin foresees a unique destiny for the Russian people. For Dugin, a defining feature of Russia is its absolute separation from the West. He has argued for a martial foreign policy conducted along civilizational lines. In 2012, he predicted that Putin would fall if, in Gessen’s words, he “continued to ignore the importance of ideas and history.” Technocratic stewardship of the economy was not enough. Putin needed to show Russia’s strength and to compensate for past humiliations.

By 2014, a version of Homo sovieticus had returned. The Russian state had restored the authoritarian Soviet institutions. Putin had dispensed with President Boris Yeltsin’s concept of “national penitence” for the sins of Soviet communism. Putin skillfully exploited divisions within Russia by championing “traditional values,” including an official aversion to homosexuality, and by stylizing the state as the safeguard against Western decadence. Ideology was ascendant. The social sciences were cast as an obstacle to conformity. “Russia,” Gessen concludes, “had a mafia state ruling over a totalitarian society.”

THE NATURE OF THE REGIME

Both Plokhy and Gessen suggest that the Russian state is moving toward fascism. After the annexation of Crimea, Putin argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union had left Russians a “divided” people. He declared that Russia “could not abandon Crimea and its residents” to live under the new pro-EU Ukrainian government. For Gessen, this rhetoric “recalled Hitler’s Sudetenland speech directly.” Plokhy refers to a “Crimean Anschluss.” Plokhy, Walker, and Gessen all agree that Putin depends on militarism to retain power. Well before 2014, the state had distorted history to stigmatize the West, valorize Russia’s wars, and thereby compel the loyalty of the Russian people. The war in Ukraine is merely the kinetic version of this political project.

Plokhy, Walker, and Gessen are haunted by the modern, self-critical, conciliatory polity that Russia failed to become after 1991. Plokhy can only urge “Russian elites to . . . adjust Russia’s own identity to the demands of the post-imperial world” and to abandon the awkward anachronisms of Russian foreign policy. Gessen finishes her book with an absurdly macabre portrait of Moscow in 2016, a city with “the geometry and texture of a graveyard,” the capital of a country impervious to the marvels of liberal civilization, a country “seized by the death drive.”

But fascism, totalitarianism, and “the death drive” are misleading descriptions of contemporary Russia. They mask the uncoerced, or popular, foundation of the post-Soviet Russian state and, indeed, of Putin’s government. One pillar is the Russian history not identical to imperial conquest. Missing for the most part from these books is the enthusiasm among Russians for their individual and communal pasts, for the history that is not pathological (at least not in Russian eyes), for the lived experience of their extended families. Many Russians love the Russia they have inherited from the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet periods, with its language, literature, landscapes, music, popular culture, jokes, and food.

The very disruptions of recent Russian history have heightened an emotional connection to the past that neither the West nor the westernization of Russia can supply. In the eyes of the West, Russia should be rapidly distancing itself from its traumatic twentieth-century history. To many Russians, that would be tantamount to amputation. They want a Russian leader who, like Putin, works with, rather than against, the past.

PUTIN’S POPULARITY

The degree of Putin’s genuine popularity is unknowable. His reelection earlier this year was more a display of apathy than ardor. All polling and electoral data in Russia are suspect, but Putin clearly dominates the political culture. He has delivered the stability that many Russians craved before his presidency, although, as Dugin realized in 2012, stability is boring. Still, although nationalist ideology can be exhilarating, Russians are skilled at decoding propaganda, another legacy of their Soviet past. The government’s success in manufacturing the nation’s obedience may be much more superficial than Putin would like.

For now, Putin’s system works because it meets Russian culture halfway. Society is fostering some of the tendencies for which the government takes credit, such as the assertion of Russian pride and the refusal to serve as a student of the West. Gessen writes of an early Soviet Union in which “the expression and cultivation of a Russian national identity were strongly discouraged.” A century later, Russian society is expressing and cultivating a national identity that would exist with or without Putin. That identity has created Putin more than he has created it.

A major weakness of both Walker’s and Gessen’s books is their subordination of culture to politics. Under Putin, Russian culture has been repressed and made into propaganda, but by the standards of Russian history, it has been relatively free and unpoliticized. It cannot be reduced to positions for or against the Kremlin. The theaters of Moscow and St. Petersburg have a vitality that has nothing to do with politics. Leviathan, a 2014 film that criticizes Putin’s system of government and the Russian Orthodox Church, was funded in part by the Russian Ministry of Culture. High-quality Russian television shows, such as Fartsa (a Russian Mad Menof sorts), examine the Soviet past with originality and nuance.

The complications of this culture show up in the idiosyncrasies of Russian politics: the opposition stalwart Alexei Navalny appears to believe that Crimea belongs to Russia, Russian Communists chastise the post-Soviet state for abetting inequality, and many nationalists loathe Putin for not going far enough in Ukraine. These stances reflect the ambiguities and contradictions of the Russian population.

Dugin and the Western-oriented opposition figures Gessen describes occupy extremes on a wide spectrum. Most Russians are aware of the horrific corruption of their leaders yet see their country as separate from western Europe and the United States. It is quite possible that Russians born after 1991, few of whom are followers of either Dugin or the opposition, believe in the distinctiveness of Russian culture more than their parents or grandparents ever did. At the same time, Russians young and old know that beyond providing stability, a degree of prosperity, military might, and a startling redesign of a few showcase cities, Putin has done little to modernize Russia. No amount of television programming or high-profile sports events can hide the effects of bad governance or the reality of strongman rule.

The deepest source of Putin’s popularity comes from his foreign policy. As Gessen notes, polls showed that 88 percent of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea immediately after it took place, although, as she says, that is a questionable number. Popular feelings of victimhood and imperial longing help justify military action abroad, but so does sheer defiance of the West, the element of Russian life most confounding to Western observers. That defiance has its roots in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the Cold War. But elements of it show up as far back as the nineteenth century—in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, for example, which commemorated, 68 years later, Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s invading army. Today, many Russians share an image of the West, and especially of its foreign policy, as aggressive, hypocritical, triumphalist, and condescending.

NATO’s expansion in the 1990s and the first decade of this century bolstered this image in Russia. The alliance has always threatened Russian pride more than Russian security, and Putin is a virtuoso at appealing to wounded pride. He has cheerfully defied the West in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, earning the support of many, perhaps even most, Russians because he does not back down, as Gorbachev and Yeltsin did before him. Since 2014, Putin has held his own, militarily and economically. Although he cannot remain president forever, his adversarial foreign policy will outlast him.

LIVING WITH RUSSIA

Western policymakers must take better account of popular Russian attitudes. So far, diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine have failed because the West has little leverage over Russia. The tool it has chosen—economic sanctions—has only whetted the popular Russian appetite for defying the West. Plokhy refers to “the crippling effect of the economic sanctions.” But each year since 2014, Russian foreign policy has grown more recalcitrant, more anti-Western, and more ambitious. Western countries have sometimes aspired to turn Russia into a responsible stakeholder in the international order. At other times, they have tried to isolate Russia and prevent it from using force outside its borders. They have not been able to achieve either goal.

Even when power does change hands in Moscow, Western policy must rest on sober expectations of what is likely and what is possible. Hopes of a democratic friendship between Russia and the West are dead, and in a contested relationship, Russia will prove a formidable adversary. The Russian population will tolerate major sacrifices for the sake of prevailing in a confrontation with the West. Russians are in no rush to adjust their identity to the demands of the post-imperial world.

Western powers, then, should confront Moscow only on issues on which their own will is strong, such as cyberwarfare, election interference, and the integrity of NATO. They should not attempt to deter Russia with false displays of strength, because Russian politicians pay a heavy domestic price for backing down and will do so only as a last resort. In Syria and Ukraine, Moscow has not been shy about calling Western bluffs. When Western countries do decide to challenge Russia, they should take bold steps, present clear ultimatums, and be willing to back up any threats with their superior resources.

At the same time, the West should pursue extensive cultural and diplomatic contacts with Russia, just as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. When and if Russia westernizes, it will be on Russian terms. So without expecting Russia to be yet another European country, Western governments and societies should break down the divisions between Russia and the West by emphasizing common ground and by offering an image of Western life that defies the caricatures that are prevalent in official Russian media. There will be no easy breakthroughs. There may be only irritation and stalemate. Still, it would be wise to balance sanctions, military buildups, and pointed rhetoric with a sincere message to the Russian people that, although Western powers are ready for anything, they would prefer peace to permanent conflict.


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