Stalin appears to Putin in
a dream. The President is weighed down by concerns about the
state of the nation, and asks Stalin: “What should I do about the economy? Crime
is high, and unemployment…”
Stalin, without pausing for thought, responds: “Round up and shoot every male between the age of 21 and 30, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue”.
“Why blue?”, Putin asks.
Stalin: “I had a feeling you’d only query the second part...”
RUSSIAN humour maintains a deserved reputation for communicating unvarnished truths with a wry stoicism, even if things in Vladimir Putin’s Russia aren’t quite as bad as that. This issue of The Liberal is devoted to exploring Russia in the age of Putin, with a view to the challenges facing her citizens and her government in the decade ahead. It also looks back to mark the 90th anniversary of the Revolutions of 1917, which continue to stimulate and inform public debate about the future of the country.
In truth, the failed uprisings of 1905 are probably a more insightful marker with which to consider the nature of Putin’s administration. In the wake of the capitalist free-for-all of the Yeltsin period, it has been tempting to view the President’s manoeverings in purely egocentric terms, as Anna Politkovskaya tended to (political power as “a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that...L’Etat, c’est Putin”); yet the Kremlin’s ‘managed democracy’ is very much a development of the Tsarist political tradition, more top-down and patriarchal than hands-on and party-lead. This is evidenced at least in part by the President’s overtures to the Russian Orthodox Church and its ‘spiritual leader’ Patriarch Alexei II. The ultra-conservative institution – with its triad of Pravoslaviye, Samoderzhaviye, Narodnost (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality) – shares many of the Kremlin’s concerns about sovereignty and the role of the state in the modern democratic era. At a ceremony attended by leading cabinet members last Spring, the Tenth World Council of Russian People adopted a Declaration of Human Dignity and Rights, a document overtly critiquing a secular understanding of human rights as being incompatible with the moral and ethical approaches of Orthodoxy. Too close an adherence to this set of values would, Alexei remarked, likely lead to the “revival of neo-paganism”; what ‘Mother Russia’ required was the steady hand of a benevolant authoritarian.
While the President’s manouevers may be best understood in realpolitik terms, Russia finds itself in a position comparable to that of the other major (in all but name) ex-Communist power, China. Putin, like Deng Xiaoping before him, believes that the nation-state need not be weakened, as it was under his predecessor, by embracing capitalism; and that there need be no longer a proverbial tension between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia ‘window to the West’: rather, capitalism can be the engine for the rehabilitation of ‘Greater Russia’, with its energy-lead influence and ‘soft power’ in blizhneye zarubezhiye (‘the near abroad’). If anything, the great achievement of Moscow and Beijing is to seem like they have, in the words of Perry Anderson, “no ideology of [their] own” – a classical Marxist mistake, born of the belief that capitalism must always be the ends, and never the means. Indeed, Anderson has argued that the Kremlin’s recent “rages” over oil and gas in the former Soviet states are “neurotic, not psychotic symptoms”; but Russian nationalism was arguably never psychotic in a 20th-century sense, and despite Putin’s toleration of growing anti-immigrant sentiment – whipped up by the unfortunately-titled Liberal Democratic Party, and Rodina (‘Motherland’) – the President is wary of allowing forces outside of the Kremlin dictate events on the ground (Rodina was banned from taking part in Moscow’s municipal elections last year).
This Sino-Russian vision found expression in 2005 with the ‘Joint Statement of the PRC and Russian Federation Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century’. The document places an emphasis on the importance of “international law and…of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression [and] non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”, with the latter point being mentioned, almost word-for-word, on four different occasions. One must wonder how it has come to this: that, for all the failures of American foreign policy, it is possible for two of the nations responsible for the greatest violations of human rights to proclaim their faith in (the increasingly nebulous notion of) ‘international law’. Certainly, the strategic coalitions made at the the Shanghai Cooperation Summit, in which this relationship finds its economic voice, are no less worrying; Pakistan, and Iran have both applied for full membership since receiving observer status at the 2005 event. Fifty years after the Treaty of Rome, these alliances provide a direct challenge to the political and ideological project of the EU, which must discover a new energy and focus to offer a counterbalance to the excesses of East and West.
The so-called ‘East Asian Bargain’ – the implicit agreement between the rapidly-expanding middle classes and the governing elite (that the former will get rich but, in return, stay out of the political sphere) – is ever more evident in both these countries. Russia in 2007 is a state in which the secret service, or FSB, is more powerful than their KGB predecessors; in which the “enemies of the Russian regime” may be legally murdered abroad; where it is more dangerous to practise journalism than in Sudan or Zimbabwe; where property rights are purposely kept ambiguous to allow for government (re-)appropriation; where the extremely centralised state cedes no power to the regions, and bars democratic election for 89 state governors, as well as the mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg; where there is no longer a minimum vote turnout in elections or a majoritarian system that allows independent candidates to stand, and one cannot vote against all the candidates; where Yabloko, the foremost liberal party, enjoying the wide support of up to 20% of St. Petersburg’s electorate, was removed from the ballot under the pretext that the lists containing voters’ names for party registration included too many forged signatures (a decision made yet more injurious by the fact that the party was later informed it could in fact field candidates for a mammoth deposit of 90 million roubles, or £1.8 million). The political project of liberalism has never been more pressing that it is in Russia today.
“The only thing politics and poetry have in common”, Joseph Brodsky once remarked, “is the letter ‘p’ and the letter ‘o’”. In 1939, one of Brodsky’s great influences, WH Auden, penned a notebook prose piece entitled ‘The Prolific and the Devourer’ (“the Artist and the Politician”), dedicated to exploring the distinct nature of these temperaments. At no point did either poet, however, suggest that this seperateness negated the political project, and both were committed to cultivating a more pallatable politics and engaging polis (“There are worse crimes than burning books”, Brodsky wrote. “One of them is not reading them”). Since the heady days of perestroika, with its flourishing of creative and intellectual discourses, when 30,000 Russians filled a stadium to listen to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry, the public sphere has found itself increasingly moulded by the preferences of capitalist culture. Consumption has increased by a staggering two and a half times in the last six years, and with it those who experience something of the societal alienation familiar to highly industrialised societies (of America, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here, / our country moving closer to its own truth and dread, / its own ways of making people disappear”). The liberal project must devote itself to rehabilitating the public sphere, a Romantic commiment with a rich tradition in Russia, from the Golden Age contemporaries of Shelley and Byron – Pushkin and Lermontov (“No, I’m not Byron; I am, yet, / Another choice for the sacred dole, / Like him – a persecuted soul, / But only of the Russian set”) – to their Silver Age adherents (p.44). And it is in this light that we may better understand the ‘In Place of a Preface’ from Akhmatova’s famous ‘Reqiuem’ – as being not only an affirmation of poetry per se, but of an unwillingness to abandon the public sphere to that ‘politics’, to those ways of making people disappear:
During the awful days of the Yezhov Terror, I spent seventeen
months waiting in the visitors’ prison queues in Leningrad. One day,
someone ‘identified’ me. Then a woman standing behind me
in the line, who of course had never heard my name, awoke from the
torpor typical of all of us there, and asked me, whispering into my
ear (all spoke only in a whisper there):
“And can you describe this?”
And I answered:
“Yes, I can”.