Vladimir Shlapentokh

Январь 8, 2014

Khodorkovsky’s release and the end of the Russian opposition

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 11:45 пп

Khodorkovsky’s release and the end of the Russian opposition

Vladimir Shlapentokh

Khodorkovsky’s release from prison, with his ensuing declarations about his intentions, was an event of great importance. In fact, this event signifies Putin’s final victory over the democratic opposition in Russia, and the regime’s entrance into a stage wherein society will function without influential oppositional figures. Khodorkovsky, who looked like a potential leader of the resistance to the authoritarian leader while he was in prison, indirectly endorsed Putin as the legitimate Russian leader. Indeed, as a Moscow journalist said, and as paradoxical as it may sound, his liberation was a pleasant New Year’s gift the Russian president gave to himself.   

Look at the conditions under which Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison in December: his immediate departure from Russia and a promise to abandon his oppositional activities. He is permitted to take the innocuous action of working from abroad to release other political prisoners. The Kremlin would hardly consider Khodorkovsky’s naïve New Year’s recommendation to the Kremlin on how to extirpate corruption—which was simply unbelievable for such a famous manager—as a breach of his promise to be out of politics. Khodorkovsky merely suggested they “decimate, or fire, each tenth apparatchik in the so-called Power Ministries.”

Based on the texts he sent from prison, Khodorkovsky had emerged as a political tribune to the Russian people, comparable in Russian history with either prince Andrey Kurbsky, who wrote vitriolic letters to his former boss, the tsar Ivan the Terrible, or with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote his famous “Letter to the Soviet leaders.” What Khodorkovsky said after his release has very little in common with the texts he composed in his prison cell. Such terms as “authoritarianism” or “honest election,” which were key words in any of the extended articles written by him behind bars, were absent in his talks with journalists after his liberation. He said nothing bad about the Russian justice system, whose treatment of him aroused justified anger across the world. From these talks, Putin, Khodorkovsky’s tormentor, almost looked like a decent and compassionate figure. For instance, Khodorkovsky was quick to mention that Putin did not demean himself by hurting his prisoner’s family during his ten-year stint as a prisoner. This reminds me of a famous and gloomy Soviet anecdote that mockingly praised the normally cruel Lenin, who behaved quite unexpectedly when a little girl lost the ball she was playing with, and the great leader lifted the ball and returned it to her, when everybody knew he could easily kill her.

In an interview with Moscow’s newspaper Slon, the former prisoner, who spent 10 years behind bars on false grounds at Putin’s direct request, described the Russian president as a rather positive state leader with whom his victim has many common views about the goals for the country, even if there are some disagreements about the means of their implementation. To Putin’s pleasure, he declared his objections to the boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi. Khodorkovsky even found that he and the president share some moral principles, which demand obeisance not so much to the law as to the norms accepted in their environment. The number of times that Khodorkovsky hailed the Russian president—directly or indirectly—almost suggests that this highly sophisticated individual who startled the world with his philosophical thoughts in his messages from prison had become something of a victim of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological state in which the victim starts to love, or at least respect, his oppressor. (I am sure that Khodorkovsky’s parents are untouched by this syndrome.)

Stanislav Belkovsky, a well-known political analyst, treated Khodorkovsky’s nice words about Putin slightly differently. He ended his article about his meeting in Berlin with the former prisoner in Moskovskii Komsomelets by stating that, “Khodorkovsky and Putin are, today, both victors.” In Kommersant Daily, Andrei Kolesnikov also commented on the deal between Khodorkovsky and Putin, mockingly asserting that it is not clear who endowed clemency to whom—Putin to Khodorkovsky or vice versa.  

Khodorkovsky is very pessimistic—not without serious grounds—about the prospect of democracy for Russia in the near future. However, he put the responsibility for it not on the Kremlin, not on “the person of the president,” but on “our citizens who, by a large majority, don’t understand their fate; they have to be responsible for it themselves.” Amazingly, he ignored the political climate, with its psychological pressure through the media and coercion, which was a direct product of Putin’s policies. As Khodorkovsky contends, the paternalism Putin has imposed on Russian society is requested by “60 percent,” a very popular view among people serving Putin’s regime, but also among Russian liberals who, like Boris Nemtsov in an interview with radio Ekho Moskvy, were in hurry to agree with Khodorkovsky. (The reference to “the bad masses” is a perennial justification for the obedience that conformist intellectuals, yearning for safety and benefits, have always given to the rulers of any country).

The developments in Ukraine in the last months of 2013, where the people showed their ability and eagerness to defend their views, and boldly confronted the political power, were not perceived by most Russian liberals as evidence of the democratic potential of their own people but rather as new proof that, in their subservience to their rulers, Russians are almost genetically or traditionally different from many other nations. Khodorkovsky’s comments on the developments in Kiev were also stupefying. He used it as a pretext to hail his liberator once again, recommending that Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich take “the president of my country” as a model, and release his No.1 prisoner, Yulia Timoshenko.

In no way can anybody rebuke Khodorkovsky for his political timidity in the aftermath of his release from the jail. He has already made a considerable contribution to the history of the struggle for freedoms in Russia. Instead of fleeing the country when the danger of incarceration was evident, he defied the Kremlin boss and stayed—to the amazement of the whole Russian society, both his followers and his enemies. His articles and letters written behind bars will probably be part of Russia’s intellectual baggage for the next several decades. His behavior in prison was an enviable example of courage and decency, which is something only a few prisoners in Russia or any other country can boast about. Vladimir Bukovsky, a famous dissident with rich experience of prison life in Russia, gave Khodorkovsky the highest grade for his conduct. In any case, Khodorkovsky earned the right to a private life, and to “grow cabbage” (the activity the Roman emperor Diocletian pursued when he voluntarily retired, as opposed to a choosing a political life). However, the people still involved in the fight for democracy in Russian view the deal between Khodorkovsky and Putin with sadness. They cannot be happy about his withdrawal from the battle against the regime. The influential Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta noted that the events surrounding Khodorkovsky’s release can lead to some disintegration of the Russian oppositional movement.  

His deal is, in fact, remarkably similar to the contract Putin has imposed on the Russian people—extracting their promise “not to engage in politics.” Putin expects his subjects to: stay out of politics; do not try to threaten his life-long tenure as the leader of the Russian Federation, and he will leave them to live as they wish (among other things, to enrich themselves through corruption, and spend their vacations abroad).

Khodorkovsky’s refusal to participate in political life is only one of several events that have led to the factual disappearance of the opposition in Russia. It was the result of the Kremlin’s sophisticated policy, which effectively combined corruption and coercion against political enemies, real and potential. Yurii Andropov, Putin’s icon, did something like this in the 1970s. Using diverse and mostly subtle methods, after exiling Andrei Sakharov from Moscow to the provinces and Alexander Solzhenitsyn abroad, the head of the KGB fired those who signed the protest letters and forced some dissidents to betray their comrades. Andropov almost exterminated any forms of resistance to the regime, which had no traces of any serious resistance to it by 1985. Putin has achieved just about the same result, amazingly, in the same period of time, 7-10 years. He has practically “cleaned” the country of any potential opposition leader.

 Alexei Navalny, seemingly the most serious rival to Putin following his success in the election campaign for Moscow mayor in September 2013, could not use it as a springboard to becoming a true national opposition leader. He continues to have very little popularity in the provinces. In December 2013, no more than 5 percent of Russians were ready to vote for him in a presidential election, compared with 47 percent for Putin. Navalny is still formally a criminal, with a deferred 5-year prison sentence, and he can be re-arrested at any time, even if the new criminal cases will not bring him a new prison term. He does not have the right to take part in any election for the next 15 years. Putin ostensibly has not extended amnesty to him, leaving Navalny completely at the president’s mercy. Putin, in fact, derogated Navalny at a press conference, saying that he is completely “innocuous” to the authorities. The president could not restrain himself from his typical vulgarities, using obscene words to describe the entire oppositional movement as exercises in vanities. By the way, in order to downplay the role of Khodorkovsky in Russia, Putin announced his decision about the clemency—the most important political event in Russia of the whole year—only after his 4-hour press conference had formally ended, while Putin was having a supposedly casual conversation with journalists.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a hope of many liberals who are afraid of Navalny’s flirtation with nationalism, suddenly transferred his formal position as the leader of his “Party of Civic Platform” to his sister in December, imitating Putin’s notorious exchange of power with Medvedev, which had triggered mass public protests. Evidently, whatever his reasons for making this move, Prokhorov’s chances of becoming a serious opposition leader have now dwindled significantly. Another active opposition figure, Sergei Udaltsov, has been totally isolated from society for the last six months, under house arrest. The champion chess master Garry Kasparov, who was very active in political opposition before, has fled the country, fearing arrest. For the same reason, the prominent economist Sergei Guriev, a moderate critic of the regime, also quit the country. A few other figures who were known for their oppositional activity a year ago, such as writer Boris Akunin, journalist Ksenia Sobchak, and politicians Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov, have been very passive and, not without reason, are ignored by Putin.

Answering questions about current political figures during his press conference in December, Putin was able to ignore all oppositional politicians, and, in evident defiance of public opinion, named Vladimir Zhirinovsky as his No. 2 politician (after Gennady Ziuganov, the leader of the Communist Party). Zhirinovsky is an admitted political clown and stooge of the Kremlin; his political career was arranged by the KGB, and he always supports the Kremlin.

Khodorkovsky’s release on the eve of the New Year only crowned the Kremlin’s operation, marking the practical extinction of the opposition “of political life,” in the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Moscow journalist. Many observers of Russian life made this diagnosis in December. The dismantling of the “Coordination Council of Opposition” in October 2013 was a symbolic event in the sad history of the Russian opposition under Putin.               

By all accounts, Putin has managed to convince a considerable part, if not the majority, of the liberal community—it influences between one-fifth and one-third of the population—that any opposition leader who replaced him as president would be a disaster for Russia. Putin is glad to see among his supporters not only those who say that Russia is now in very good shape but also those who depict the country as a morass which would, however, only be exchanged for something worse under different leadership. In December 2013, the liberal newspaper Vedomosti published an article by the famous liberal economist Konstantin Sonin, vice president of the Highest School of Economics, a harsh critic of Putin’s administration in the past. The author tries to convince the readers that it is meaningless to change the leadership in the country because new leaders like Navalny or Khodorkovsky would, first of all, appoint “childhood friends” to the new positions. Even more fatal is that they would be unable to find a sufficient number of honest and competent people in Russia to help transform the country.

Putin, in fact, completely rules the minds of two-thirds of the population, a number of supporters that any leader in the West would envy. A rather liberal and relatively independent political analyst, Fedor Lukianov, could not stop himself from praising Putin in his article in a December issue of Komsomolskaia Pravda. He is convinced that Putin is “more attractive to the world than is Russia as a country”; that Putin looks like “a titan” in a comparison with the leaders of all other Western countries, and that he inspires “reverential fear” in the world.  

In the last months, many Russian analysts have started to look at polling data showing the support of Putin with new eyes. They refuse to see these data as approval of the work Putin has done as president. Rather, they view it as a reflection of the fact that the majority of Russians do not see a viable alternative leader out there; one who would be able to prevent the country from gliding into anarchy in the existing political climate in Russia. Now, Putin will be able to persuade this “two-thirds” about practically everything. He can enforce the thought in the minds of the Russians that Khodorkovsky is a criminal but, at the same time, he can easily get the same 60 percent (if only those who responded are taken into account) to endorse his decision to release the man.

Putin fully controls the Russians’ attitudes toward the external world. Many Russians now believe the television program that suggested that the Kiev rebellion was organized by Sweden as revenge for the Poltava battle, where their king, Karl XII, was defeated by Peter the Great in 1709.

Putin’s grip on the power over Russia is as strong as ever. In some ways, Putin has surpassed Stalin in his ability to possess absolute power without having to resort to mass repressions to continue to rule Russia, unrestrained by any institution, even one like the Politburo.

 So far, Putin has not resorted to the OMON or the army to protect his power from his potential enemies—who are, thus far, invisible. Neither has he resorted, so far, to the nationalist organizations that would, at the first call of the FSB, attack any population segment targeted by the Kremlin as an enemy of the regime. Putin also has not yet called his vassal, Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnia, who would, at Putin’s call, immediately send hundreds of his thugs, full of hatred for Russians, to exterminate those who endanger his boss.

Even if the economic situation deteriorates, Putin can long rely on the Stockholm syndrome, which most of the population has embraced. The most terrible terrorist acts in Russia, like those in Volgograd on New Year’s Eve, will not shake Putin’s authority in the country; neither would a significant decline in the price of oil. The world will have to deal with the absolute ruler of Russia for many years to come. Fortunately, contemporary Russia is economically weak, and its army is not prepared for any serious military action. Putin, as a shrewd and sly leader, will avoid the serious risk of a confrontation with the West. Ultimately, the “normal” relations with the West, with all of his anti-Western propaganda, are only addressed to a domestic audience, and are very important to Putin and his circle of friends. “The Magnitsky list”—the list banning the access of Russian dignitaries to the West, where they keep their wealth, continues to be the most powerful threat to the Kremlin and the Russian elite.


Октябрь 25, 2013

What makes Putin’s the strongest card in relations with the USA:

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 3:38 пп

What makes Putin’s the strongest card in relations with the USA:the lack of geopolitical aspirations.

Vladimir Shlapentokh

The level of geopolitical aspirations are a powerful factor in international relations
The level of aspirations held by an individual or organization, or even an entire nation, has an immense influence on various aspects of their activities and the success or failure of the final outcomes. High aspirations, and the choice of difficult and prestigious goals can provide a very powerful stimulation for individuals and organizations, but can also be the cause of failure and high frustration for anyone, whether an ordinary person or a national leader. In the 1960s, David McCleland showed the difficulties inherent in the choice of the goal. High aspirations, which promise many benefits and public recognition, are also fraught with the likelihood of delivering a humiliating disaster. Low aspirations guarantee modest achievement but, at the same time, prevent people, organizations and nations from having a breakdown. Paul Kennedy’s well-founded theory (1987) about the impact of military overstretch, often a product of the high ambitions of the ruling elite, states that it leads to the decline or even collapse of big powers.
The level of geopolitical aspirations set by a country’s ruling elite is of particular importance. Certainly, the elites of some small countries could include plans to enhance their regional or even geopolitical role in the world in their agendas. Looking only at the world after WWII, we can point to Cuba’s intervention in Angola as an example, when it defied the USA and tried to claim the role of a geopolitical power in the 60s-70s. We can also point to Yugoslavia and Romania, which challenged the supremacy of the Soviet Union in 1950s-80s. At the same time, even the very small country of Albania was ready to defy both Yugoslavia and the USSR. We can also cite an example from post-Communist times: Belorussia behaves like an equal actor in its conflicts with Russia. However, the impact the level of geopolitical ambitions has on international developments is much higher if we look at big countries.
Meanwhile, whatever the objective factors are for determining the character of the geopolitical aspirations of a ruling elite (the importance of foreign successes for the popularity of the regime; the state of the economy and military forces; and the power of foreign rivals), those who control the state have a serious amount of leeway in choosing their foreign goals and, ultimately, their own fate.
It is true that the geopolitical aspirations of the Nazi elite were shaped by many factors. Still, if Hitler had been more flexible in his foreign policy, listened to his generals, and stopped his expansion in Europe after the annexation of Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939, his empire could have existed longer.
How the geopolitical aspirations of the Politburo doomed the Soviet Union The same could have been true of the Soviet Union; it could have continued to exist for many years, or even decades, if the Kremlin had abandoned the Soviet claims of being equal with the USA in the 80s, when it was evident, even to Soviet leaders, just how far behind the West their country was in its economy and technology. Indeed, the most plausible theory explaining the origin of Perestroika holds the view that the Soviet leadership came to the same conclusion in the early 1980s, after its military told them that the country could not sustain the arms race with the USA. Reagan’s “Star Wars” sowed fear in the Kremlin that the USSR was losing military parity with the West because of its technological retardation.
Even the most conservative members of the Politburo recognized that drastic measures were needed to accelerate technological and economic progress if they were to preserve their role as a superpower in the world. Such was the mandate that a relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev received from his older comrades. Gorbachev promised his colleagues that, with some reforms, he would achieve the goals set before him: the Soviet empire, internal and external, would be able to stand up to the USA as a major geopolitical rival. Indeed, the first reform initiated by the new leader was for the acceleration of technological progress, which the army had demanded from the political leadership. The Five-Year plan, which Gorbachev endorsed in 1986, was still openly aimed at preserving military parity with the USA. Then, everything went awry. Gorbachev was unable to move the economy ahead, so he resorted to liberal reforms, which he hoped would permit him to accomplish his initial mission. These reforms, however, destroyed the economy first, and then, the Soviet system.
If the Soviet leaders had lowered their geopolitical ambitions
Let us suppose that the Soviet leadership had realized in 1985 what became obvious only a few years later—that they had no chance of keeping military parity with the West—and so, the USSR and its leaders abandoned their claim of being equal to the United States. Let’s also suppose that the Soviet leadership accepted the formula of Alexander Gorchakov, Alexander the Second’s foreign minister, who proclaimed, after the disastrous Crimean war, that “Russia is not sulking, she is composing herself”; in other words, suppose that Russia had abandoned its external expansion. In a historical context, this would have meant a retreat from not only Afghanistan but also East Europe and Cuba, as well as from all other countries where the Soviet Union had military bases in the 1980s, as the next leaders did soon thereafter. In this case, the Kremlin could have avoided the liberal political reforms (as Deng Xiaoping in China did); could have preserved the Soviet’s very efficient political system, which was not endangered by anybody in 1985 (there were no mass protest movements among either Russians or non-Russians); and could have kept control of all of the Soviet Republics (probably even over the Baltic republics, all of which were docile by 1985). In this case, the Kremlin could have been “composing itself,” much like Deng, with economic reforms that had supporters in the Politburo, and which were evidently favored by Yurii Andropov, who replaced Leonid Brezhnev in 1982.
The fate of Soviet geopolitical ambitions after 1991
In fact, the program that had the USSR withdrawing from its geopolitical ambitions, which would have looked absurd to Sovietologists in 1985, was implemented with gusto by Boris Yeltsin, and hesitantly accepted by Vladimir Putin. (As a matter of fact, it was Lavrentii Beria who, after Stalin’s death, was looking for ways to be the leader of the country. He contemplated the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War so the USSR could receive aid from the West) .In fact, after 1991, Moscow not only lost East Europe and its position almost everywhere in the world, but also lost all of the Soviet republics. Indeed, Yeltsin is a historically rare example of a leader yielding a part of his state in order to retain power. In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III offered his kingdom for a horse, in order to win the battle and save his throne from the future king Henry VII; in terms of population, Yeltsin literally gave half of the Soviet empire away to oust his rival Gorbachev from power.
What Yeltsin did to consolidate his position as the leader of Russia was beyond the imaginations of not only the old members of the Politburo but many politicians around the world. Indeed, in order to save his weak liberal regime, Gorbachev himself changed the geopolitical course of the Kremlin, abandoned the confrontation with the West, and practically endorsed the unification of Germany and the liberation of the East European countries from Soviet control. However, he intended to keep the Soviet empire intact and made every effort to save the Soviet Union. Whereas Gorbachev was a man of some ideals, Yeltsin was not. He was ready to take any steps to replace Gorbachev. In August 1991, Yeltsin initiated the famous meeting of the leaders of several national republics in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belorussia , where they declared the end of the Soviet empire. In addition, in his continuing fight to strengthen his personal power, he called on autonomous republics like Tatarstan and Chechnya to “take sovereignty as much as possible” in 1992-1993, to stimulate the disintegration of what had become the Russian Federation. Only in 1994 did he reverse his policy and start the war against Chechnya, whose yearning for independence he himself had buttressed. It was only near the end of his tenure—when he feared the threat to his power by Communists and nationalists—that he decided to resort to the anti-Western card. He did so very moderately, assigning aides like Evgenii Primakov to talk about the USA less as a friend (the terminology of the early 1990s) but rather as a partner, with whom conflicts are possible. This reached its peak with Moscow’s angry reaction to the Western assault on Yugoslavia in 1998-9 during the Kosovo war, but did not translate into any serious action.
The evolution of Putin’s geopolitical aspirations
Throughout his reign, Putin has essentially continued a foreign policy based on low geopolitical aspirations. It is true that when he came to power, he not only promised the partial restoration of the Soviet Union but also a radical enhancement of Russia’s general geopolitical standing. However, Putin rose to power as the appointed heir of Yeltsin in 1999 under suspicious circumstances, and no subsequent presidential election after 2000 has been honest. Putin has never been challenged by any serious rival, and has even declined public discussions with the fake candidates. (Yeltsin was in a much better position than Putin, particularly before 1996. He was honestly elected in 1990, and was a symbol of the revolutionary democratic ideology). With general doubts about his legitimacy continuing, Putin has never been completely confident in the stability of his power, which he is determined to keep for as long as possible. Putin submitted his foreign policy only to this goal of retaining his power in the Kremlin. All domestic and international policy actions have been subordinated to this task, whatever the consequences may be for Russian national interests.
The foreign factor has been very important to Putin for the justification of his legitimacy as the Russian leader. It had to be used in propaganda to portray Putin as Russia’s protector against its numerous enemies, both among the former Soviet republics (especially Ukraine and Georgia) and outside of it (especially the USA). However, Putin’s real foreign policy has been always very cautious and far from serving any great geopolitical ambitions. This policy only became really aggressive when Putin saw the behavior of Western powers as damaging to his personal power, like the support of the democratic movement in Russia and in former Soviet republics.
Words and deeds in foreign policy
Indeed, rhetoric and real actions are different in any country’s foreign policy. However, the distance between “words and deeds” varies enormously from country-to-country during any historical period. This distance was relatively minimal for the Nazi leaders, who were as belligerent in their words as they were in their deeds, even if they interspersed their aggressive declarations with empty calls for peace under their conditions. It was the same for the Soviet leaders, who focused their propaganda on the enhancement of the Soviet geopolitical role—in the beginning, it was with the use of slogans of the World Revolution—but also used pacifistic demagoguery. Essentially aggressive in nature, Soviet ideology tended to translate its slogans into actions, not only under Stalin but also under his successors. Garrulous and ready to act, Nikita Khrushchev showed this during the Berlin crisis in 1961 and the Cuban crisis in 1962. Brezhnev’s anti-Prague Spring propaganda was followed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The distance between “words and deeds” was also minimal for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but for a different reason—their friendliness toward the West and the USA were, in general, typical of their public foreign statements as well as their actions. Putin essentially chose another combination, particularly after 2005-2006 (the period of the Orange revolutions, which Putin ascribed to the West). There was hostile anti-Western, especially anti-American, ideology being presented, but a virtual refusal to take any serious aggressive actions against the West. In other words, he accepted Yeltsin’s rejection of global ambitions, closing most of Russia’s military bases abroad, but combined these actions with an acerbic anti-Western propaganda that was mostly aimed at a domestic audience.
The leading role of anti-Americanism in the legitimacy propaganda
In the first years of his presidency, Putin used the country’s stability, which he had, indeed, achieved, as well as society’s increase in material well-being as the major arguments in favor of his legitimacy. However, the ideological resources of these arguments were eventually exhausted, while the threat to his rule, particularly in light of the Orange revolutions, increased significantly. Under these circumstances, the anti-American rhetoric—which had been relatively mild during the first years of his rule, and was even combined with several friendly gestures toward America (Putin’s reaction to 9/11 is one example, as well as the friendly relations between George Bush and the Russian president) turned into acerbic attacks against American foreign policy, and American political and economic order. The intensity of anti-Americanism presented in the official media has not been seen since Stalin’s death. Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, full of harsh denigrations of the USA, was a turning point. Since that time, Putin has piled one accusation after another on the USA. Most of these blame the USA for interfering in Russian political life. The personal insults lobbed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden, along with American ambassador Mike McFaul, would have been impossible during even the harshest period of Soviet-American relations, at the peak of the Cold War. Putin has insolently kept the highest American officials waiting in the lobby for several hours before they were led into his office.
The unprecedented rude attacks again the USA and its politicians became possible because Putin has grown confident that the USA cannot damage Russia in any serious way. Indeed, without global ambitions, Moscow does not have the same concern the USSR had—that the USA can seriously harm Russian interests in any part of the world. At the same time, the commerce between the two countries is modest, as are scholarly and technological cooperation. The collaboration with Russia in the fight against international terrorism and against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is in the interest of both countries, so, in Moscow’s opinion, Washington can hardly use it to chastise Russia.
Modest aspirations in the post-Soviet space
The important fact is that the territory of the post-Soviet republics is not now a hotspot for Russian-American confrontations. Russia is invulnerable to American punitive actions because Putin’s aspirations are relatively low here, still, the Kremlin’s desire to retain control over the former Soviet republics, at least as much as its resources allow, has never been off of its agenda since the middle of the 1990s. The attempts to create The Commonwealth Alliance of Independent States and the Euroasian alliance, similar to the European Union, were projects aimed at increasing Russia’s influence over the former Soviet republics. They failed. The creation of a custom alliance with Kazakhstan, Belorussia, and Ukraine was another mostly failed project in 2011-12. Despite these failures, however, the Kremlin has not resorted to the threat of using military means to subjugate the former republics.
Indeed, Moscow’s aspirations in the post-Soviet space are almost exclusively commercial, although there have been a few exceptions. During the 2003 presidential campaign in Ukraine, Moscow clearly supported Victor Yanukovych, making pro-Russian declarations against Victor Yushchenko, an aggressive Ukrainian nationalist. Despite its clear preference, however, the Kremlin never threatened the use of the military force to install its candidate. Georgia was probably a more serious example of Russia’s political activity in post-Soviet space. Moscow practically annexed two parts of Georgia –Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It was engaged in a war with Georgia (the ambivalent role Tbilisi played in directly provoking the war is another story), yet stopped its troops from seizing Tbilisi and dethroning Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president passionately hated by Putin.
In the last several years, Moscow has not revealed any intentions of sending their troops in anywhere. When Kirgizia formally asked Russia to do so in 2009, to protect the country against Islamists, the Kremlin refused to use this opportunity to expand its military presence in this country beyond its old air base.
In general, commercial aspirations in post-Soviet space have served as the priority interest for Putin’s circle—to accumulate as much revenue as possible by selling raw materials, predominately oil and gas. These revenues are vitally important to maintaining the level of consumption the country has achieved and, with it, the stability of the regime. Of no less importance are the personal interests of Putin’s circle, who, as stockholders and members of the boards of directors, have direct access to the revenues of the companies involved in the export of raw materials. The Kremlin has actively supported such conglomerates as Gazprom and Rosneft, the main sources of income for the ruling elites as they push to acquire local firms in the post-Soviet republics, in order to strengthen their monopoly on the markets of the neighboring states. In commercial conflicts with the post-Soviet republics, Moscow has only resorted to methods used in “normal” trade wars, such as raising gas and oil prices, or impeding imports from these states.
What is remarkable, however, is that, even in the case of commercial conflicts, Moscow will generally sacrifice ambitions of expanding its ties with the ruling elites of the post-Soviet republics for the sake of commercial interests. They risk alienating political allies in as big a state as Ukraine or even Belorussia, the state that is most friendly to Russia in all the world, in arguments over economic issues that are the most important to Putin and his friends.

The low geopolitical aspirations and the army
Even with its low geopolitical ambitions, Putin’s regime has claimed to be very concerned with Russian military capacity in the last several years. Indeed, they have spent a significant part of their oil revenues on increasing military expenditures, which have quadrupled over the past six years. The reforms of the army and the navy, which the Putin regime talk’s about a lot through the media, are also supposedly aimed at enhancing Russia’s military preparedness. However, even if the money appropriated for the army were indeed being used as intended (in 2011, Russia’s chief military prosecutor said that 20% of the defense budget was being stolen or defrauded each year), and the reforms were successful—both of these suppositions have been rejected by most independent Russian military experts—the Russian army would still be far from presenting any ability to confront American military forces, aside from nuclear weapons, to enhance Russian geopolitical status. The war with Georgia in 2008 (not to mention the sad experience of the Chechen war) was a difficult task for the Russian army, and revealed its weakness in many respects. De-professionalization of the officer corps, gigantic corruption in the army and mass hazing, which scares the parents of draftees to death, are among several factors that make the Russian army such a poor tool in fighting for a high geopolitical role in the world. Putin’s slogan that Russia “has raised from its knees” is considered to be absolutely empty by many Russian analysts.
In fact, Putin’s regime has not infused big money into the army so much to enhance Russia’s geopolitical status—which is impossible, given Russia’s economy and scientific community (Putin has practically encouraged the flight of the best minds, which are vitally important for military industry, out of Russia)—as to strengthen the army’s loyalty to the regime. With his preoccupation with preserving personal power against any odds, Putin needs to be sure the army will defend his regime in case of turmoil, and will not help his internal enemies to demote him, as the army did with Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. By pouring a lot of money into the army with a great amount of publicity (it was never done with such a level of pomposity during Soviet times), Putin has shown respect for the generals and officers, whose material standing, not incidentally, has improved enormously during Putin’s regime. He has also demonstrated his preoccupation with the defense of the motherland to the military establishment, which still, despite the universal corruption, contains quite a few military commanders whose patriotic feelings are strong. The huge amount of money sent to the army also caters to the patriotic sentiments of a large part of the Russian population, with its nostalgia for Russia’s past military greatness. It was remarkable when, on the eve of his resignation in 2011, Alexei Kudrin, once the economic tsar of Putin’s regime as his Minister of Finance (2000-2011), publicly cast doubt on the expediency of the big military budget. He was, evidently, alluding to the lack of reasons for increasing military expenditures.

The need for small conflicts with the USA
Putin tries to avoid confrontations with the USA by any means, which can be fraught with serious military tension. However, in order to regularly fuel anti-American propaganda, he needs to have some permanent conflicts with America. The harsh critique of the American missile defense system in East Europe has served this goal perfectly for many years, despite the fact that all of the independent Russian military experts laugh at the propaganda’s thesis that this system presents any threat to Russia. The Kremlin does not miss any opportunity to annoy the USA, and to show the Russian public again and again that it considers Washington to be a committed enemy of the motherland, knowing well that the USA, with its policy of restraint in its relations with Russia, will leave these actions unpunished.
The regime publicized the arrest of an American diplomat in May 2013 as that of a despicable spy, while at the same time praising the Russian agents who were kicked out of the USA in 2010 as national heroes. With great sadistic pleasure, Moscow has treated Edward Snowden as a great human rights defender in 2013, mocking Washington for labeling him a traitor, and assigning the official media to gloat about American concerns about the consequences his actions will have on national security. Even naming a Moscow street after Hugo Chavez, a steadfast enemy of the USA, was intended to pester Washington when it was done in 2013. With the same intention of hurting Americans and giving new life to anti-American propaganda, Moscow banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans in 2012, ignoring the desperation of the American couples who had almost finished the complicated adoption process. At the same time, in order to inflame anti-American feelings, the official media described how badly Russian children are treated in America.
Brandishing American intervention in Russian political life, as well as their support of the opposition, has played a prominent role in anti-American propaganda because it is personally important to the master of the Kremlin. Expelling the governmental organization US Agency for International Development (USAID) from Russia in September 2013 for being directly involved (according to the Putin administration) in anti-Putin activity was a direct insult to American leadership which had profusely demonstrated the American government’s desire to improve the relations with Moscow during Obama’s first term.
Of course, Moscow’s main leverage is Russia’s right to use its veto in the UN Security Council to obstruct many American initiatives, particularly those related to North Korea and Iran.
Syria in 2013 and Cuba in 1962
The issue of Syria is of special interest in the analysis of today’s Russian geopolitical aspirations. After Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, with his proposal to destroy Syrian chemical weapons and its acceptance by the US, the official Russian propaganda, and, to some degree, the Western media, began to talk about Moscow’s return to the role of a major geopolitical actor, equal to the USA. It is a very wrong diagnosis.
To understand the developments around Syria in the fall of 2013, compare it with the relations between the USA and Russia during the Cuban crisis in the fall of 1962. During the Cuban crisis, both superpowers behaved as adversaries who were almost equal in power; neither one of them could easily impose its will on the other. Similar confrontations between the USA and USSR, wherein both countries flexed their muscles, took place during the Berlin crisis in 1961; the Suez crisis in 1956; and the Israeli-Arab wars in 1967 and 1973. In the recent episode, Russia essentially retreated before the United States’ threat of military force against Syria, without even once resorting to a promise of using its own military power to defend its ally. The presence of the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, which Putin has never mentioned during the Syrian crisis, was not viewed by Washington as a viable factor for deterring a US military option.
In fact, while reducing his geopolitical aspirations to a minimal level, Putin has been extremely cautious and often inconsistent in his support of the countries Moscow has regarded as its allies in challenging the USA, like Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. Contrast this with the Soviet meddling in the affairs of dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia after WWII!
It is true that Putin decided not to abandon Russia’s ally, Syria, this time. Several factors explain Putin’s behavior. Abandoning Syria’s government—a country very close to the Russian border, and the last bastion of Russian interests in the Middle East, with the naval base at Tartus being the last Russian military facility outside the former Soviet Union—would demonstrate to the military establishment in Russia how little Putin is actually concerned, despite his words, with Russia’s geopolitical role.
Of no less importance is the ideological motive for Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. The propagandistic campaign in Russian media, showing Syria as a victim of American imperialism—America becomes enmeshed in the domestic affairs of one country after another—helped the Kremlin to sustain and even increase the hatred of America in Russia. However, unlike the episode with Cuba, Putin’s protecting Syria did not rely on Russia’s limited military power but only on diplomatic maneuvers, which, in turn, were only successful because most Americans and American allies were not in favor of military action. This combination of factors helped Putin to almost miraculously gain prominence in the international arena, and to regain some prestige despite his meager resources. Not a bad achievement for Putin, who has only accumulated bad scores for his international policy during his tenure as president.

Conclusion: narcissism as a threat to a modest foreign policy
There are views that Putin’s policy around Syria, together with the growth in Russian military expenditures, are a signal of Putin’s willingness to restore Russia (at least partially) to the previous geopolitical role of the USSR. Not only does this appear in Russian propaganda but many Western observers hold this view. Putin himself is delighted with his Syrian success.
Of course, while he is still in firm control of the country, with his special police units (OMON), he always needs something to fuel his declining prestige inside the country. Putin has hardly forgotten that the slogans during the 2011-2013 demonstrations on the streets of Moscow—still an unbelievable fact in Putin’s Russia—denounce him as a “thief” (“vor” in Russian) who stole the position of president with a dishonest election and a lot of money from semi-state corporations. The successes of oppositional politicians, such as Alexei Navalny’s showing in the Moscow mayoral election and Evgenii Roizman’s win in the Ekaterinburg mayoral election in September 2013, were also ominous signals for the president.
No doubt, like many leaders of authoritarian states from any time in history, Putin suffers from narcissism. There is a long well-known list of Putin’s “exploits,” which show him as a macho man who can embrace a tiger and dive into the sea to search for ancient amphora. The list of Putin’s stunts as a superman is very long. Putin prompted his myrmidons, like his aid Alexei Surkov, to name him as “chosen national leader by God.” He has commissioned one “documentary” movie about his personality after another. He has appeared several times on every official TV news program, being presented in a most flattering way. He has regularly organized meetings with “ordinary” people who, with their pre-arranged questions, make him look like a highly competent and wise leader. Judging by the Russian media, adding the title of “the leader who was able to prevent a war in the Middle East” would be very attractive to him. Putin is definitely yearning to achieve the status of a leader who can operate in the world with the same authority as the Soviet leaders did. However, it is evident, thus far, that Syria’s developments have shown that he cannot deal with an international crisis as Soviet leaders did.
So far, Putin, a former KGB man, has behaved quite rationally from the perspective of his own interests. He does not want to make the mistake of the Soviet leaders in the 1980s, and insist on a high geopolitical role for Russia despite its scant resources. Putin has been able to control his narcissism to this point. He evidently separates “words and deeds” in international politics. He obviously knows that one of the accusations against Khrushchev, when he was kicked out of the Kremlin, was his adventurism during the Caribbean crisis. However, Putin’s narcissism has not been restrained by either the ruling elite or the public, who mock his behavior. Still, even if Putin’s ability to conduct conventional military actions is very limited, the Russian nuclear arsenal is under his full control. With his low geopolitical ambitions, there are two major irritants for him. One is Western assistance to his political opponents inside Russia, which explains his almost hysterical reaction to any sign of disrespect shown to him as the legitimate Russian leader. Second are the restrictions on travel, imposed by Western governments for members of his elite travelling to the West, as well as those on their access to their properties in these places. For this reason, the Kremlin viewed the Magnitsky act, the law adopted by the American congress in 2012 that contains the list of the Russian officials who were involved in the death of the Russian lawyer, as the most painful action taken by Washington. Both of these irritants affect Putin and his plans for the future directly and personally.
As a matter of fact, the leverage of the USA over Putin is much more limited than that which American leaders had over their Soviet counterparts during the Cold War. Without big geopolitical aspirations, and with oil prices at a high level, Putin is almost invulnerable, except for actions that pertain directly to his personal status and his future. There is also the possibility that Russian political and military establishments would have their own leverage over their leader if he were to, in their opinion, cross the border of rationality. For the same reason, the West can hope that, despite the absorption with his personal interests, Putin will keep “the elite factor” in mind, and will continue to cooperate with the US, even in a fitful and inconsistent way, in the fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as dictated by the deep national interests of Russia.

Июль 29, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 9:42 пп


The debates in the USA about the activities of the NSA cannot help but draw public interest to Soviet history, and the ways in which the Soviet regime supervised the lives of their citizens. Implicitly or explicitly, those who condemn the American government and its agencies see the installation of Prism as a move which, if it is not shut down immediately and completely, could lead America to an Orwellian society. The offered text provides the reader with a broad description of the Soviet system of surveillance, which was probably the most highly developed program of its kind in history. However, the author came to the rather unexpected conclusion that this system of collecting information about its citizens only played a minor role in the repressions of the USSR. The political leadership made the decisions about the scope of repressions, and even the individuals who had to be eliminated from society, under the impact of a variety of circumstances; the information collected by KGB agents, and by the millions of people involved in the process, was mostly ignored. The preservation of political freedoms, especially privacy, depends on the devotion of the major political institutions to democracy; on the observations and adherence to honesty in the election process; and on the independence of the legislature, the judiciary system and the media from the executive branch. Information about people can only be used against them if the government and its agencies start to pursue their own goals, as happened in the Soviet era. Otherwise, the reasonable restriction of privacy in order to enhance the security of the citizens and the nation cannot damage society.

Hovering over the debates in the USA about the surveillance of Americans, which have inflamed so many of its citizens, are the specters of Soviet society, with its KGB and Gulag. In fact, those who furiously denounce the administration for its desire to know what Americans said on the phone and what they text to one another almost always warn that this intrusion into privacy by Big Brother can only be a first step toward the transformation of America into a country similar to the USSR, with all its terrible political institutions. Those who applaud Snowden as the great defender of freedom are sure that the whole system of totalitarianism only emerged because the Russians allowed their government to collect information about their life. This diagnosis is so wrong! Without a doubt, critics of the NSA’s activities are absolutely right in drawing attention to the violations of privacy, which always impairs the mechanisms and preservation of democracy. The absolute protection of privacy rights, if it were possible, would be extremely beneficial to democratic ideals. However, the price that society has to pay for collecting data to fight terrorism and foreign intervention—some infractions on privacy—is minimal, and the true threat to democracy lies elsewhere. The history of the Soviet Union, as well as of any other totalitarian society, proves it. Collecting information about individuals only became perilous in the Soviet regime under special conditions.
With my 50-years-experience of life in the Soviet Union—I did not miss out on Stalin’s period—I know what it means to live in a society under the watchful eye of Big Brother. As academics, I, and everyone around me, assumed that the political police, the KGB (prior to that, the NKVD-GPU/Cheka), were trying to collect all of the information they could about us; this was true of all of the members of the intelligentsia, who were better able to resist falling for the official propaganda than less educated people. We understood that the main target of the KGB’s attentions were our thoughts and feelings; our “politically incorrect minds.” We knew that “material” resistance to the Soviet authorities was negligible, and that attempts to change the regime had been practically unknown since the middle of the 1920s, when the political police spent the lion’s share of their resources on discovering those who could be accused of “anti-Soviet thinking.” The notorious Article 58 in the Penal Code guaranteed 10 years of the Gulag for even making a joke with a bad political flavor, which could easily be interpreted as having been “directed at the denigration of the authorities.” The KGB agents were interested in our behavior because it could help them to penetrate our brains and fish out our hidden animosity toward the system. It was only in the late ’60s and later that the KGB started to deal with a small group of people who were ready to not only think “incorrectly” but to participate in some public protest actions.
The Americans today who are fixated on the issue of the government listening in on telephones and reading texts in social networks as the source of information about their private lives can hardly imagine how vast and diverse the system was for collecting data about Soviet citizens like me and my friends.
The KGB kept you under permanent monitoring if they had the slightest suspicion about your Soviet political correctness; they watched your spouses, lovers, friends, and friends of your friends, as well as those colleagues, teachers and neighbors whom you preferred to others. They all came up as the “surrogates” of the individual of interest (you) to the “organs,” the term used in the USSR for the KGB. A negative opinion of the “surrogates” as not being loyal people was automatically extended to you. Your children could perform the same function. If vigilant teachers, young Komsomol activists or any of your child’s buddies who aspired to a career detected political elements in the blabbering of your children in school or college, it was also fodder for reflection by the guys in the local KGB office who monitored you, and who assumed—not without grounds—that the mentality of children reflected the ideological climate in the family quite well (I, for instance, was always terribly afraid, and very reasonably so as my experiences showed, that my teenage son might blurt out some critical thoughts about the regime in school. Indeed, I was summoned to the director of the school in the Novosibirsk Academic city because my son, Dmitry, praised the poet Evhenii Evtushenko in a composition; Evtushenko was being lambasted by the party media during this period). Even children of kindergarten age could be useful “surrogates” for their parents if they disclosed some traces of respect for religion in the family.
The conversations people had with each other have been always an important subject of curiosity for the political police. Of course, first among them are telephone conversations. With much less advanced technology than we have today, the Soviet political police were quite adept at listening and recording telephone conversations. The interlocutors in phone conversations would warn each other that they would not discuss one issue or another because “it is not for telephone conversation”; this was as typical as greeting each other. The KGB did not neglect listening to conversations in the lobbies of a library or its smoking room, at concerts during intermissions, at conferences, or even in the public baths either (I always preferred a table at any corner of a restaurant, minimizing the number of people who could hear our conversations). In several cases, the KGB used various devices, installed in an apartment or in a car, to monitor conversations held during private gatherings, as was the case with our apartment in Academic city, which was a sort of “salon” in the 1960s, attended by many prominent people, even from abroad.
You could lose self-control and tell a partner something that could enrich your KGB file during all sorts of events. It was particularly productive, from the KGB point-of-view, to watch how you reacted to a game between Soviet and foreign teams, whether in a stadium or on TV, or to know your reaction to a chess match between a Soviet grand master, e.g., Boris Spassky, and his foreign rival, Bobby Fischer. If you were unable to hide a wish for the foreigners to be victorious during an interaction with somebody who turned out to be a friend of the KGB, then your genuine political dispositions toward the motherland were obvious. In any case, it was highly recommended that you only watch international sport games in the presence of trusted people.
The KGB not only coveted conversations, they wanted texts that could shed light on the thinking and intentions of their authors. Of course, texting was decades in the future, but, even 50 years ago, the Soviet people generated multitudes of examples of their writing skills. Students’ and scholarly papers, and published books could reveal anti-Soviet feelings in either their budding or matured forms. Unfortunately for the KGB scouts, the most perfect source of penetration into the human mind—diaries, which were in vogue before the revolution—almost fully disappeared from the lives of Russians who did not want to prepare their own files for the KGB.
Of course, since the installation of the Soviet order, no Russians trusted their political views to letters. As a young officer, Solzhenitsyn once violated this rule and was cruelly punished for it. Even in complaint letters sent to the Central Committee or to newspaper editors, the Soviet people tried to show restraint and not give the impression that they blamed the Soviet system in general for their troubles so much as the local administrators. And if the authors of these letters were not cagey enough, and revealed their animosity toward “the system,” then they paid dearly for not hiding their emotions. As a sociologist, I worked with the Soviet national newspapers in the 1960-70s. I learned that letters to the editors were regularly perused by the KGB in order to fish out hidden dissidents.
Soviet people regularly found themselves in situations that could reveal their true feelings about political matters, which they generally tried to hide. The trained eye of a KGB informer could catch people’s true attitudes toward the regime. Take, for instance, the public meetings held during the phony election campaigns, or college classes devoted to ideological matters. It was one thing if you attentively listened to the propagandistic baloney flowing from the podium, but if you read a book or journal, talked to your neighbors or exchanged notes with unknown content in them, or even, perhaps, played chess by heart…well, it goes without saying that showing a lack of enthusiasm or even the slightest reservation in supporting the official line at a public meeting—which may well have been arranged to call for the denunciation of a Soviet personality guilty of some un-loyal action (such as participating in a protest action, publishing the wrong book, expressing his or her desire to emigrate, or refusing to condemn American aggression in one or another corner of the world)—was very damaging to your political reputation, and this fact would find its way into your dossier.
If you were so valiant as to refuse to drop a ballot containing only one candidate on it into the ballot box, or would not even come to the election station, you would have big negative scores put into your personal file in the local or national KGB office, depending on your status among the real or potential enemies of the regime. In the minds of the KGB operators, your negative status increased enormously if you refused their offer to be a secret informer, a test which millions of Soviet people passed favorably for their recruiters, but whose actual results we are not likely to know anytime soon.
There were also several other actions that could reveal the Soviet people’s latent attitudes toward the regime to the KGB “psychologists.” First, reading Samizdat, anti Soviet literary works, and illegal political bulletins would cause a serious blow to your political reputation, even if you did not participate in their dissemination, which promised you incarceration. Reading the writings of former Soviet leaders like Trotsky or Bukharin was a crime of the same magnitude. Reading foreign authors labeled as hostile toward the Soviet system and its ideology, like Orwell, Koestler, Djilas, and even Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, was an action that could bring you trouble even during the “mild” times of Brezhnev’s rule. Listening to foreign radio was also regarded as an anti-Soviet act. Soviet authorities energetically jammed the airwaves that permitted people to listen to Voice of America or Freedom. Those who were regular listeners of foreign radio—one way or another, their names became known in their milieu—were stigmatized by the local party committees, and by some ordinary people. Even an interest in foreign language study, particularly during Stalin’s reign, was definitely not a sign of your deep love of their socialist motherland. (My obsession with foreign languages accounted for a lot of my bad reputation when I was a student at Kiev University in the second half of the ’40s. I was even mocked with obvious ideological insinuations for this “hobby” in the wall newspaper that the party-loyal students published in one copy, like a poster or like the famous Dazibao of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.)
The investigative eye of the KGB was not indifferent to people’s interest in the cultural products that passed Soviet censorship either. The adulation of foreign movies endorsed by the censors and shown in Soviet theatres raised the brows of the party and the KGB purists.
In the post-Stalin period, in addition to completely hack periodicals, the Kremlin allowed the publication of a few relatively liberal journals. The authorities could use these to separate “true Soviet patriots” who read the journals with a steady party line, like October (in the ’60s), from those who preferred the rotten publications, like Novy Mir (the New World), a journal published by Solzhenitsyn and several other authors, and despised by the party apparatchiks. (As a sociologist, in fact, I used this same methodology that I hated in the KGB’s hands: studying the audience of the Soviet newspapers in the 1960-70s; I separated the readers who sympathized with the former journals, the Stalinists, from those who preferred the second one, the liberals. Alas, the paths of sociologists and KGB watchers in a totalitarian society sometimes overlapped. Fortunately, it did not happen very often because of the Soviet system’s innate hatred of sociology).
In addition to the individual subscriptions to Soviet periodicals that could attract the KGB’s attention, the list of books borrowed from a library was an important source of information when the KGB fellows needed additional proof of deeply rooted anti-Soviet views. If a suspected person regularly checked out Dostoyevsky, and at the same time ignored Soviet writers with an impeccable ideological reputation, like Bubennyi or Kochetov, these were grounds for tipping the balance in favor of a negative judgment of the poor guy suspected of being wrong-minded.
We should not forget the monitoring of the contacts of people under surveillance. First and foremost, contact with foreigners was a priority of the KGB sleuths. The Lenin library in Moscow highlights a funny example of this. The Western graduate students were allowed to utilize a special room reserved for professors, which, being relatively small, made it easy for the KGB guys, who were always there, to watch the Soviets with whom the guests from the USA or France would communicate. (As a visitor to the professorial room, I could detect the presence of the KGB minders without any difficulty: the books they pretended to read were always authored by Marx or Lenin.) For the KGB, finding out who made contact with dissidents, or even people who had declared their intentions to emigrate, was of great importance. Everybody knew this fact, and people adjusted their behavior according to their courage and moral principles.
The size and assortment of people who provided information to the KGB was enormous and astounding. Of course, the primary sources used by the KGB were the people who personally knew those who were the object of their interest. Those who came up as surrogates for the people under supervision also, in some cases, played an important role as secret informers—regular or casual; volunteer or coerced.
Following the Soviet collapse, the Russian authorities did not follow the examples of their former East European vassals; they did not perform per lustration, nor did they open the archives of their political police. If they had, the Russians would have learned who among their relatives, friends, graduate students, colleagues and neighbors in the communal apartments was being used, voluntarily or under threat, as a source of information about the behavior and thoughts of those to whom they had declared their love, devotion, gratitude or, at the very least, friendship.
Certainly, the people close to those who were the object of political monitoring were only a part of the wide network of informers who served the KGB. Millions of Soviet citizens were enrolled—under various circumstances, with various degrees of willingness, and with various motives that could be as simple as a dream of annexing their neighbor’s room in the communal apartment—in the network that provided the KGB with information about the people around them. (Of course, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its police units had their own network of agents, who were mostly used to fight criminals.)
The KGB had a special interest in the creation of a network in the milieu of the so-called creative intelligentsia (scholars, writers, actors, film figures, and artists). As we now know from disclosures from Hungary, the famous liberal film director Istwan Szabóo was implicated in having cooperated with the political police. In 2006, the Hungarian newspaper Life and Literature revealed that Szabó, an internationally famous film director, writer of the movie Mephisto (1981) (who, by the way, had denounced the cooperation of intellectuals with the Communist regime), had been an informant of the Communist regime’s secret police. Between 1957 and 1961, he submitted forty-eight reports on seventy-two people, mostly classmates and teachers at the Academy of Theatrical and Cinematic Arts. The revelation caused a widespread sensation in the country. We can only speculate that Soviet intellectuals, with pasts that were much more horrendous than their Hungarian colleagues, did not stand up any better to the intimidation of the KGB officers during the process of recruiting, and yielded to their blackmail even faster. The author of one article published in the ’60s, in the journal Kontinent, asserted that no less than one-third of the members of the Union of Painters collaborated with the KGB; of course, he could not provide any empirical corroboration for this number.
In no way was the Soviet mechanism for monitoring citizens based only on the network run by the KGB. The party apparatus had its own network of informers, and the party leaders could compare information about individuals from both sources. (For information about the mood of the masses, though not individuals, the KGB and party leadership also used the information collected for them by the police, the courts and newspapers.) It is especially significant that, after Stalin, the KGB was restrained in watching party officials of high status.
The Soviet system was built in such a creative way that any person holding a managerial position, even a modest one such as the head of a department in a college or a small hospital, was obliged to inform his or her superior about statements made by subordinates that were not “politically correct.” The same actions were included in the job descriptions of any public activist, be they the secretary of a small Komsomol cell or the chairman of a trade union branch. Teachers, of course, were responsible for the soundness of their pupils’ political views, and were supposedly obliged to immediately dispatch information on political deviations in their classes to the principal. If not, she risked an accusation of collusion with the carrier of the anti-Soviet bacteria in her class, or even of being the primordial cause of wrong views being spread in the class. Teachers who did not report the “wrong” opinions of their students were later proclaimed as heroes (among them was my late friend, Felix Raskolnikov, a teacher in the famous mathematical school No.2 in Moscow).
The creation of the massive network of spies from/for their own citizens was one of the greatest innovations of the Soviet system (along with Gosplan, the State Committee of Planning, or the apparatus of the ideological indoctrination of the population). Perhaps the Soviet people, with their long history of terror, were close to paranoia, but the idea that “squealers” were everywhere was widespread. Many of us in the Novosibirsk Academic City in 1960-70 believed that we had to suppose there were informers in each university class, in each laboratory, or in every research institute or department of the university. We expected that snitches were present at each meeting of our famous club “Under Intergral,” at each birthday party, at each banquet accompanying the defense of a dissertation, and, of course, in each group of people permitted to travel abroad. It is only natural that in each encounter with a new person we tried to make an approximate estimate of his trustworthiness and of the probability of his reporting to the KGB, and always preferred friends from our childhood and youth, as they were thought to be less likely to inform on us.
A long cultural tradition, perhaps universal in nature, demands that we hold squealers, snitches or rats in contempt. For this reason, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to expect that people who had betrayed their friends, their colleagues, and even their relatives, would admit to their deeds after the demise of the USSR , even if they recanted them. The attempts of some post-Soviet researchers to ask former Soviet scholars about their cooperation with the KGB failed almost completely. If somebody confessed that their mission abroad was imposed by the KGB (usually explained as a condition for a travel to the West) none even remotely hinted that he or she “ratted” on colleagues, either during the trips or at home. Of course, there is nothing to be found on this topic in the memoirs of former Soviet intellectuals or in studies about them.
It was only by chance that I learned that one of those whom I considered a friend had spoken with the KGB about me in the late 1960s. I do not know of any such unpleasant KGB meetings by other people whom I liked. Perhaps this is for the best because I never could restore my relationship with the gentleman, who had “objectively,” as he later insisted, discussed my political views. Still, ten years later, I found myself making excuses for him: he was a brave officer during the war; he was terribly afraid of the authorities. I always found an excuse for his extra-conformity.
Even now, statistics about the KGB network are one of the strictest state secrets in Russia. We have no data about the number of people involved in gathering information on Soviet citizens but it has become obvious that no less than one quarter of the Russian population was engaged in this process in one capacity or another. The gigantic amount of resources, labor and material that could have been used by the Soviet leadership for activities that were really useful for society, were, instead, directed toward obtaining information about its citizens. There is no doubt that the ruling elite’s obsession with collecting data about their subjects is a necessary part of the landscape of any totalitarian society. But was collecting these data, which was at the root of Soviet society, a necessary condition for maintaining the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Definitely not. The megabits of information that flew to the KGB played a minimal role in the terror designed into the system eve if it implanted fear in the hearts of Russians.
Indeed, the major repressive campaigns that occurred in Soviet history had very little to do with collecting information about its citizens. The number of people who were sent to the Gulag after the October revolution was determined by two major factors: first by objective social demographic variables, and then by public behavior.
The first cohorts of the Soviet victims from 1918 through the 1920s included all of the people of “bad social origins,” and their family members—nobles, bourgeoisie, tsarist officers and bureaucracy, as well as the members of the bourgeois and socialist non-Bolshevik parties. No information on individuals was necessary for the Cheka and the GPU to make a decision to arrest, execute or send the people who belonged to these groups to a camp. The deportation of millions of rich peasants in the late ’20s and early ’30s did not require special individualized information about the ideas in the heads of the “Kulaks” either. The number of cattle owned or hired hands who worked for them provided an excellent basis for the verdict about expropriation and exile to Siberia. The next wave of deportation, in the middle 1930s, could also be executed without going to the trouble of collecting information: Germans, Poles, Koreans, and then, in the mid-1940s, Crimean Tartars, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and several other ethnic groups. All of them were given 24 hours to prepare, and were then placed on freight trains to be sent to the East. The KGB did not show any interest in the individual files of the deported, and even people who returned from the front with chests full of medals were made to join in the deportation of their own ethnic groups.
The mass political terror that started after 1934 looked a little different. People were arrested and met with their fate–execution or the Gulag–on an individual basis. However, “the socio-demographic factor” still prevailed. The probability of arrest was extremely high, no matter what was in the agents’ reports about you, if you were one of the old Bolsheviks, a high party or state official, a leading general of the army, or if you even briefly supported Trotsky in the past, were a member of a Zionist organization or had spent so much as a short period of time abroad. However, Stalin wanted those arrested to appear to be guilty. However, again investigators did not need objective data about their victims compiled the necessary information for themselves, attributing the most fantastical crimes to them. The victims were then forced under torture to sign affadavits confirming the veracity of their crimes. Stalin’s “great” attorney general put forth the notorious Vyshinsky’s Law. According to this, the confession of “the defendant” was sufficient to sentence him to death. Additional “information” about the “culprit” was extracted under torture from other victims, who provided their butchers with lies about each other. No sophisticated methods of surveillance were necessary for Stalin’s thugs to do their assigned work.
Both techniques were used after the war, with full contempt for surveillance data: those who were German war prisoners were automatically sent to the Gulag on “wholesale principle”; also sent were participants of the so-called “Leningrad affaire,” who had the absurd goal of separating Russia from the Soviet Union; and the Jews accused of being the spies for the USA, and of planning to kill the Soviet leadership, were treated “on an individual basis,” where, once again, the prosecutors made up “the evidence.”
In the post-Stalin period, when the mass repressions were halted, it is possible to suppose that an individual’s file began, at last, to play a decisive role in shaping the destiny of the person under surveillance by the KGB. It is evident that, in the absolute majority of cases, repressions were directed against those who publicly performed acts against the Soviet system and its ideology. The political leadership of the country made the decisions to arrest or exile people. They could choose to punish people for even mild oppositional activity. We do not know of even one time when people were persecuted based only on private data. Without a doubt, the population was aware that Big Brother watched them, even if he did not always use the collected information. Along with the cult of secrecy, the atmosphere of fear is an important ingredient for authoritarian and, even more so, totalitarian societies. While the scope of terror was always determined by the political leadership, and was in no way influenced by the information obtained by the political police, the decision about who specifically should be arrested, who should be promoted, and who should be allowed to go abroad was, to some degree, influenced by the KGB’s files. But the leadership made the specific decisions, often ignoring the files and taking several other factors into consideration.
As the history of the Soviet Union shows, including the Stalin and post-Stalin periods, the major threat to people’s freedom and security does not stem from the secret surveillance of their lives but from the ability of the political institutions to persecute people, to create obstacles to their careers and travel, and, finally, to deprive them of physical freedom.
The American experience has confirmed the same ironclad law—it is not information about citizens but rather institutions pursuing their own goals that is responsible for the persecution of innocent people. The American experience of the 1950s confirms this conclusion. The anti-Communist campaign after the war, including the period of McCarthyism, created a societal climate that had some elements similar to Soviet society. Of course, the scope of repressions was much lower than in the Soviet Union, and only a small part of the population was the target of governmental attention. However, the search for information linking various types of people with the Communist Party was intensive, and prompted by real incidents of Soviet agents penetrating American society with the help of the American Communist Party. The FBI, the Department of Justice, and other organizations enlarged the scope of their investigations enormously, embroiling innocent people and creating an atmosphere of fear in various milieu. However, the information collected about innocent people or about any people who enjoyed their freedoms was often false. It could only be damaging, though, because the House Un-American Activities Committee—along with Hoover’s FBI—had tremendous power over the fate of people suspected of disloyal behavior. As soon as the activities of the McCarthy committee were effectively stopped by Congress and the Supreme Court in 1957, the value of the information collected about suspected people was reduced almost to zero. Of course, the damage that McCarthyism brought to American society was quite long-lasting. The history of the period proves, once again, that the danger of intrusion by the government in our private lives really only exists when governmental agencies can exploit it in pursuing their own political goals, as did Hoover’s FBI or McCarthy’s committee.
The harsh critique of the NSA’s activities did not bring one fact to light showing how an innocent American citizen suffered from the government’s listening to his or her telephone conversations. The argument that “it is only the first step” is not valid by itself. If they want to worry about the fate of their democracy, Americans should be concerned with the democratic controls over all these institutions, which can really intrude in their lives and in their freedoms. The true independence of the courts and the media, the honesty of elections, and control over the activities of the government and its agencies should be the major concerns of the American public. Indeed, as various polls show, the American public takes a balanced view in the trade-off between the protection of privacy and security interests. There is no doubt that society should closely watch any actions that curtail privacy, a cherished American value, and protest if it finds that this reduction in privacy is not necessary.

Июнь 18, 2013

Anti-Americanism like never before as the core of the Kremlin’s official ideology

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 5:21 пп

Anti-Americanism like never before as the core of the Kremlin’s official ideology

 Vladimir Shlapentokh

          From the 1930s until Perestroika, anti-Americanism held an “honorable” place in Kremlin propaganda. It peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and declined after Stalin’s death. However, even when anti-Americanism raged, it was never the core of Soviet propaganda. Under Stalin and each of his successors, Soviet propaganda was based primarily on positive ideology, with socialist principles and nationalist ideals, faith in a radiant future, and, of course, belief in the superiority of the existing Soviet system over the Western one.

          Anti-Americanism disappeared from the Russian media from the first years of Perestroika through the last years of Yeltsin’s regime. The USA was treated positively, in much the same way as the Russian liberal intellectuals in the 1960-70s had perceived America as a model for their country. The first shift toward a return to the old anti-Americanism occurred in the late 90s, when Yeltsin’s regime—being aware of the population’s growing discontent, which was based in economic turmoil and privatization—decided to foment some moderate anti-Americanism, partially blaming America for Russian troubles.

          Anti-Americanism increased dramatically with Putin’s rise to leadership, when it became evident that the ruling elite did not possess a positive ideology that would be attractive to Russians. In fact, Putin turned out to be the first Russian leader to rule the country without a cohesive ideology containing appealing ideals for his subjects. He has refused, of course, to describe himself as a champion of liberal capitalism, and he has never said anything about the advantages of liberal capitalism during his time at the top of power. Even less has Putin claimed to be the troubadour of socialism and Marxism. We have not heard anything positive about public property, planning or social equality from him during his entire 12 years.

Putin has often defended the Soviet past against its critics and has rarely missed an opportunity to save the name of Stalin from harm, directly or indirectly. This does not constitute protecting socialism, however, but the Soviet imperial past and the Soviet role in geopolitics. In 2009, at an economic forum in Davos, he dared to show his contempt for socialism to a foreign audience (he never did this inside the country); he even took on the role of adviser to Obama, warning him never to fall into the trap of socialism.

          It would also be difficult to present Putin as a herald of Russian nationalist ideology. By all accounts, it is much easier for Putin to declare that he is a “Russian nationalist” than a “socialist,” or a “liberal capitalist.” However, with all his apparent sympathy toward his Russian identity, personally, Putin is very tolerant of other nationalities. He is surrounded by Jews, Germans, Tartars, Chechens and people from various Muslim countries. Being aware of how easy it is to provoke xenophobic feelings in Russia—as in any other society—and how difficult it is to dampen the fires of ethnic hatred, which could ultimately destroy his regime, Putin has not, thus far, used this card in his propaganda.

          With all these constraints—no socialism (pro or contra), no capitalism (pro or contra), and no Russian nationalism (pro or contra)—Putin’s administration faces a very difficult task in creating an ideology that can legitimize his regime. In the first years of his rule, the regime’s official propaganda relied on the restoration of stability in the country as the main pillar of its mission. Official media incessantly blasted the “the terrible years of 1990s,” depicting them, not without grounds, as years of universal corruption and criminalization, a time of the disintegration of the Russian state and the decline of its international status. Of course, Putin’s role during the ’90s, such as the conditions of his arrival to power and the manner of his personal enrichment, were hushed, as were the careers of those oligarchs who later became close to him. Putin was proclaimed the savior of the nation, saving them from chaos and anarchy. He became almost as much of a sacrosanct figure as Stalin, who was the leader to save the motherland from enslavement by the Germans during the war.

The potential that lies in the figure of the savior—including the association with the image of Jesus Christ as the savior—is so great that even seven decades later, in the 2010s, a considerable number of Russians (no less than one-third) ascribe the victory over Nazi Germany first to Stalin, not to the army or the people. Putin, however, could not hope to continue to play the role of savior as long as Stalin. By the middle of the 2000s, after the country began to enjoy the benefits of some stabilization and high oil prices, Putin’s image of savior began to fade away, and the deeply dishonest presidential elections could not justify Putin’s presidential position.

 Putin was practically appointed to his position by Yeltsin; the election campaign of 2000 did not comply with even the most elementary requirements of democratic order. By the middle of the 2000s, Putin’s administration had to change its strategy to substantiating the legitimacy of the president. 

This is a major reason why anti-Americanism, which had only been an auxiliary instrument of Putin’s ideology up to this point, moved to the forefront, even surpassing “stability” to become the leading subject of his strategy. The importance Putin began to ascribe to anti-Americanism in official propaganda was also a direct effect of the color revolutions in the former Soviet republics in 2003-2005.

Indeed, while the color revolutions, in and of themselves, looked dangerous to Putin, his hatred of them was multiplied by his conviction that they were all staged by the West, particularly the US, which he believed viewed these uprisings as rehearsals for doing the same thing in Russia. Putin was particularly irritated that the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine clearly intensified the West’s critique of Putin’s regime and its legitimacy. Putin holds the strong belief that the masses in Russia (or in other countries) are unable go against their government on their own, without instigation and financing from abroad.

The West has, indeed, strengthened its efforts to spread the view that Russia is in the process of “de-democratization”—a term used in a prestigious report by the National Council on Foreign Affairs, entitled “Russia’s Wrong Direction” (2006). In 2007, Freedom House included Russia in a group of 45 countries that it classified as “not free”; its election processes were ranked a 3, as were those of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (in France, the ranking was 12). The Kremlin was even more irritated by the public criticism offered by then high-ranking American officials, including Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. All these developments were perceived by the Kremlin with its own opposition in mind, which the government believed could encourage its own color  revolutions with the help of the USA.         

The “Arab Spring,” and the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in Tunis, Egypt and Libya in 2010-2012—regimes which looked unassailable to the Kremlin—could only have enhanced the impact of the color revolutions on Putin. He was evidently affected by the fate of the rulers of Arab countries, “the victims of the Arab Spring”; Gaddafi’s fate particularly intimidated Putin. The Russian liberal media made regular parallels between Putin and the ousted dictators, and predicted the same fate for him. The execution of Iraq’s dictator Hussein could also generate unpleasant parallels in the minds of Putin and his elite.

 The Kremlin and its experts had no doubt that the “Arab Spring” was arranged by the USA, in the same way as the color revolutions. This could only have augmented Putin’s antipathy toward America. Moscow also watched the growing ideological offensive against Putin’s regime from the USA and other Western countries, under the impact of the “Arab Spring” with the utmost displeasure. In the opinion of the Kremlin, this, too, undermined the regime’s legitimization.

          Putin had already radically changed his policy toward the West and the USA by 2005-6. Once again, as it had been in the pre-war USSR, Russia declared itself a country besieged by enemies, a position which the Soviet government had avoided claiming after 1945, until 1991. It now feels invaded by various types of foreign agents, professional spies and recruited liberals, bought by the State Department, along with various foundations that serve only as front organizations for American special services.

These changes in the foreign policy doctrine were strongly dictated by Putin’s concerns for his personal power, and only minimally by geopolitical considerations. In fact, Putin’s attitude towards America has not been shaped by issues like anti-missile defense or North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The USA’s attitude on these issues have played a submissive role in Putin’s construction of relations with America, contrary to the views of many American politicians and experts who, like Putin’s propagandists, look at Russian foreign policy as being shaped by Washington’s actions on the international arena, and not mainly by Putin’s view that the West, and America first of all, are a threat to his position as the Russian leader.

Putin’s big innovation in his ideological fight against America was to shift from defense, Russia’s political order, to offense, denouncing the political system in the USA, and in the West in general, as even less democratic than his own (or at least of the same quality). He took a radical step in this direction in February 2007, in Munich, when Putin asked the West to stop teaching Russia about democracy, suggesting instead that they should “learn about it themselves.” He discussed “the double standard of Western policy,” the “CIA secret prisons in Europe,” the “illegal violence in Iraq,” the “weakness of American democracy,” and the immoral mass media. At his press conference on June 4, 2007, rejecting any critique of his regime, Putin described America in the gloomiest terms possible, as Stalin had a half century ago: “Just look at what’s happening in North America. It’s simply awful: torture, homeless people, Guantanamo, people detained without trial and investigation.” Since that year, Putin has rarely missed an opportunity to express his contempt for American democracy. For example, in June 2013, he mocked the view that the American Congress is independent, insisting that it is as submissive to executive power as legislatures elsewhere. He insisted on the moral superiority of Stalin over President Truman and contended that, in the spring of 1945, if Stalin had been in possession of an atomic bomb, he would have not used it against Germany but “ the Americans used it against Japan.” Without showing even a modicum of sympathy for the USA and its people, Putin also downgraded America as a country of “ethnic cleansing” and racism. Even at the peak of anti-Americanism after the war, Stalin and his propagandists never stooped so low as to muster their contempt for the American nation. They always made the distinction between the ruling class and ordinary honest Americans, as did Konstantin Simonov, Stalin’s pet writer, in his play The Russian question in 1947.


The reversal in attitudes toward international public opinion

With his new propagandistic strategy, Putin radically changed the attitudes of the Kremlin toward international public opinion.

Throughout the 19th century and the 74 years of the USSR, Russian leaders displayed varying degrees of sensitivity to international public opinion, often suggesting that , as much as possible, their officials avoid any behavior that might bring the ire of the West down upon them. 19th century Western travelers to Russia, such as the Marquis de Custine (Empire of the Tsar: a Journey through Eternal Russia, 1839) or Sir Moses Montefiore (who visited Russia in in 1849 and wrote a memorandum of his impressions) noted the often awkward attempts of Russian officials to present their country to foreigners in the best light possible, at the behest of Tsar Nicholas I.

In the 20th century, those who attended the 1980 Olympic Games remember the energetic attempts made by Brezhnev’s officials to please foreign visitors. There were hundreds of Soviet jokes about the ruses devised by the authorities to try and present Russia in a favorable light to foreigners.

Under President Putin, however, Kremlin attitudes to international public opinion have changed radically. He has put a stop to attempts to gain the support of Western public opinion, rejecting any public criticism of his regime and sanctioning any act that supports it.

The Khodorkovsky case was the first sign of Putin’s growing indifference to Western public opinion. His arrest in 2003, first trial in 2005, and second one in 2010 aroused a storm of protest in the USA and Europe, but Putin was implacable; a third trial might even be in the cards.

The 2009 prison death (actually, murder) of Sergey Magnitsky, the lawyer and accountant who revealed a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme by government officials, triggered an angry international campaign and demands for the punishment of the relevant law enforcement agencies. Once more, the Kremlin refused to react to the international outcry, or to the threat by Congress to introduce a law banning those officials responsible for Magnitsky’s death from entering the US. When the Magnitsky Act was passed and signed by President Obama in 2012, Moscow reacted defiantly, barring the adoption of Russian children by would-be parents from the US.

The new law on “foreign agents,” and the closure of the Russian USAID program— one of the American government’s most important agencies—were the next steps aimed at directly insulting the USA and international public opinion.

The Kremlin displayed the same contempt for Western outrage in the Pussy Riot case. Perhaps the group’s unauthorized guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was both tasteless and deserving of disapproval, but sending 3 young women to prison for 3 years can only be described as cruel over-reaction. Western political figures and musicians protested, but to no avail.

Protests at the Kremlin’s evident intention to jail the charismatic blogger Alexey Navalny, now on trial on a trumped-up charge, have also been ignored by the Kremlin, which has remained similarly unmoved by the flight of the economist Sergey Guriev to the West, under threat of arrest for his connection with Navalny.

Yury Levada and Sociology

The history of sociology in Russia serves as a good illustration of the new policy toward international public opinion.

In the late 1950s, the Kremlin permitted the emergence of empirical sociology in the Soviet Union, as a demonstration to both its own intelligentsia and, more importantly, the West that it had embarked on a path of gradual liberal reform. In 1958, the Institute of Concrete Social Research was established; a powerful argument to Western observers that the Soviet regime had changed course. Soviet scholars were allowed to attend international congresses as full-fledged members of the profession, and, in 1966, some sociologists (well monitored by the KGB) attended the International Congress of Sociologists in Evian.

There was, of course, a system of tight controls: every word in a questionnaire had to be endorsed by 3 or 4 levels of academic and party hierarchy, though the authorities required the sociologists to conceal from their foreign colleagues just how restricted they were in their activities, and how much they were under the control of the Party and the KGB.

The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia resulted in a Kremlin attack on honest sociologists. This was disguised as a debate within the sociological academic community, and had the figure of Yury Levada, one of the discipline’s main theorists, at its center. In his Lectures on Sociology (1968), he denounced the tank invasion of Prague, for which he was sacked from both Moscow University and the Institute of Sociology. He refused to repent, though his challenge to the Party meant that he would spend the rest of his life cut off from professional work and living with the threat that at any moment he could be sent to the Gulag. Had he actually been arrested, public amazement would have been minimal. He was under constant KGB surveillance and was unable to teach, publish, run seminars or participate in conferences. There was, of course, no question of him travelling abroad. His students, including the future director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, were unable to find jobs. The Kremlin was incensed by the social scientist who had dared to challenge its power, but did everything it could to hush up the scandal. The media said nothing about the attacks on Levada.

During Yeltsin’s rule, and by the first years of the Putin regime, Levada not only had the reputation of a staunch (former) Soviet dissident—a status awarded by public opinion to very few intellectuals—but an active career in circumstances he could only have dreamed of during the long dreary years of the 70s and 80s. However, when Putin decided to do away with any suspicion as to the legitimacy of his position, Levada once more found himself in the firing line because Putin recognized in him a pollster who could not be bought off or scared.

Boris Yeltsin had invited Levada to become a member of the Presidential Council. At the same time, in 1988, he, together with the radical scholar Tatyana Zaslavskaya, became the directors of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), the first social survey organization in the history of Russia (from 1992 until his death in 2006, he was the sole director of this organization). They began asking the Russian public questions that would have been unthinkable in Soviet times. Levada’s greatest achievement was to put together a group of young people devoted to the quest for truth—as far as possible in social research—and ready to fight for their freedom as researchers. Articles by him appeared regularly in the press, and he became a familiar figure on TV. This was a complete change of fortunes for someone who had lived with the constant threat of imprisonment for so many years.

But the fairytale started to unravel when Putin came to power. When he decided to do away with any suspicion about the legitimacy of his position, Levada once more found himself on the firing line because Putin recognized him as a pollster who, unlike many of his colleagues in similar organizations, could not be bought off or scared. The Kremlin decided to exploit the formal connection between Levada’s company VTsIOM and the state (the Center was officially part of the Labour Ministry): in 2003, Levada was removed from his position as director and replaced with a yes-man. ( Levada later organized his own firm to study public opinion ).This time, public opinion at home and abroad did react: Putin was traveling to the USA and, at a meeting with journalists, was bombarded with questions about Levada. But Levada’s re-instatement was not going to happen, and the outcry in the American media was ignored.

Foreign agents

The mass protest movement of 2011-13 produced the same effect on Putin as the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Once more, Moscow regarded the US as the instigator of the protests—it is immaterial whether this was sincere or not. This time, the Kremlin decided to escalate the fight against the opposition and eradicate the last oasis of resistance. The ideological device for the new offensive was the “foreign agent.” In our globalized world, practically every organization in Russia has some connection with the West, and in particular with the United States, so it is not difficult to brand any group, association or company as “foreign agents.” With an enviable self-confidence, Putin’s henchmen have dismissed any criticism from the US as irrelevant and not meriting attention.

After a raid on the Levada Center in May 2013, the Kremlin officials wrote a warning memo to the Center about its foreign companies, which subsequently became a laughingstock throughout the world. This quasi-historical document accuses the Center of engaging in political activity by producing data which can be exploited, for instance, “in an election campaign or a debate in Parliament.” In the mind of Putin’s ruling elite, the Levada Center’s guilt is compounded by the fact that the firm receives money from abroad, chiefly the USA, even though this represents no more than 2% of their total income. The accusation is that the Center is turning into a “foreign agent,” representing the interests of a foreign country in Russia.

The implications of this accusation are many. First, as Lev Gudkov said in his statement on the subject, it signals a return to the political climate of the pre-perestroika era. As in many other areas, the fact that there is some freedom conceals the restoration of elements of totalitarianism. On the surface, sociologists are not monitored on a daily basis by political minders, as they were before 1985, but the indirect methods of control—including self-censorship and fear—are enough to make sociologists and the media react instantly to signals from the Kremlin. Every polling company in Russia keeps its eye firmly on the ball; there is no need for state intervention or memos to compel the bosses or their subordinates to engage in self-censorship or to contemplate becoming an informer for the authorities. Russian sociologists enjoyed the freedom to conduct social research for such a relatively short time; now it is gone once again, probably for a long time.

The 2013 attack on the Levada Center was, indeed, a clear message to all sociologists and pollsters that Russia’s boss will not countenance any data that might cast doubt on the legitimacy of his leadership. Many observers have pointed out that Putin’s attention is constantly focused on two sets of data: the price of oil and his popularity rating in Russia. The head of the Kremlin may have no leverage over the first, but he is confident that he can regulate the second.

Actually, the lack of free and fair elections or a strong ideology makes Putin’s ratings one of the few props available to the regime. The Kremlin has virtually said it will not allow a recurrence of the situation in May 2013, when social survey companies loyal to the government reported approximately 64% support for Putin among Muscovites, whereas the Levada Center figure was 20%. The Center has also published data showing that 51% of Russians agree with Navalny’s description of “United Russia” as the party of “crooks and swindlers.” The argument by some Russian liberals, that Kremlin leaders are depriving themselves of real data on the state of affairs in the country, is no more convincing than suggestions were to the Soviet leaders that it would be in their interest to support empirical social studies. For the Putin (as for the Soviet) regime, objective information is more of a danger, because it helps the enemy, than a benefit, because it would provide information about the best way to remain in power (they know this without being told).

Putin will certainly get good ratings from polling firms now. The old joke in Alexander Zinoviev’s 1977 novel Yawning Heights, about Kremlin leaders who were disappointed with their sociologists because the popularity rating of the General Secretary was reported at 120% when they expected 140%, has once more become relevant. In recent years, the Russian public has doubted the validity of much of the data produced by various organizations, but had been more certain that the Levada Center information was still reliable. Now they will doubt that the Center, if it survives, has been able to preserve its independence, without yielding to Kremlin pressure.

The attack on the Levada Center was the culmination of the Kremlin campaign against “foreign agents” (for “foreign” read “American”). Many organizations in Russia have been harassed, but the Levada attack is particularly significant because it was aimed at freedom of speech. It is, in effect, yet another indication that the USA is public enemy no. 1 to Russia, and that their agents have penetrated every single cell of Russian society.

The new frame for propaganda: anti-Americanism

          Authoritarian rulers almost always choose a frame for their propaganda. This means that whatever issue is raised by propaganda should be presented in one or another ideological frame. In the first decades of the Soviet system, the frame was based on the theory of class struggle. Almost every subject in the media, movies and works of fiction was interpreted in terms of class struggle. After the war, until Stalin’s death, Russian nationalism was the frame. Since 2003-5, and especially after 2011, Putin awarded this role to anti-Americanism. It means that, whenever possible, those who serve the regime or who are loyal to it have had to support the status quo by tapping into the font of anti-Americanism, directly or indirectly. These people turn almost any debate on flaws in the existing system into a speech about America, where a defect is much bigger than anything found in Russia. The critique of elections in Russia is downplayed by the statement that American elections are much more dishonest than those in Russia. Corruption in Russia is, of course, high but in America the situation is even worse. If Russia has a problem with creating a middle class, the USA has even more troubles because, as Ilai Baranikas (a Russian journalist working in America) suggested, its middle class is disappearing, while in Russia it is still holding out. It makes no sense to scold the Russian authorities for their inability to cope with natural disasters since the USA showed how helpless they were in dealing with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

          There are important differences in the activities of anti-American propagandists in the Soviet times and Putin’s time. Now, Russian journalists and American experts know the USA much better than their predecessors did fifty years ago. Many of them have often traveled to the USA, and know the real weak spots of American society. This knowledge of “the enemy” helps them to carry out their anti-American propaganda, since a combination of real facts, lies and semi-lies influences the public much more effectively than a concoction comprised only of lies. Soviet participants in ideological warfare were ill-equipped with knowledge of America. For instance, they had big problems understanding the Watergate affair, and for a long time (up to its end) described it as Nixon’s intrigue.

          There is another interesting detail found in the changes in the anti-American propaganda in Russia. In Soviet times, almost all trials with political overtones, like that of poet Joseph Brodsky in 1964 or of writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1966, were closed to foreigners. Now, the Russian authorities are self-confident in their confrontations with the USA and the West, and have opened the court to foreign journalists during the Khodorkovsky trials in 2005 and 2010, and for Navalny’s trial in 2013.

The support of anti-Americanism in the country

          Putin gets help in his anti-American obsession, even from people who are regarded as his political opponents. Of course, Communists and nationalists are happy to join Putin in his anti-American propaganda. Paradoxically, in recent years, quite a few Russian liberals have also made their contribution to this cause, denouncing various aspects of American society. Some of them, such as the respected political scientist Lilia Shevtsova, a merciless critic of Putin’s regime, wrote in American Interest in June 2012, that America (as well as the West in general) is bankrupt in all possible ways: “failing economy, dysfunctional domestic political systems, entrenched interests, dwindling prosperity and populism.” A known liberal journalist from the popular newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets, Mikhail Rostovsky—who is also pitiless on the Russian political system— published two big articles in May 2013. Their major purpose was to suggest to his readers that America has hated Russia since the end of 19th century, and is now consumed with the desire to turn their country into its vassal. The “Magnistsky act” is one instrument for achieving this goal. The bacilli of anti-Americanism is widely spread among the Russian professional class, and anti-American tirades are habitual at every private party in Moscow, and, of course, on any talk show on official TV. 

In some way, this has created an unexpected turning of a considerable part of the  intelligentsia toward anti-Americanism—unheard of in either Soviet or post-Soviet times, up until Putin’s regime. This was caused by a mixture of motives, even aside from the impact of governmental TV. Putin’s critics wanted to show their “objectivity” and patriotism, to vent their frustrations about their life in a backward society, and to console themselves and others with the idea that life “there” is not much better. The animosity toward America is also fed by the bitterness of some liberals that the USA has not intervened effectively enough in the Russian political process to protect the opposition from Putin.

At the same time, despite all their critiques of America, Russian liberals, and even pro-governmental journalists and politicians, regularly use some elements of American life to support their arguments in favor of their proposals, or of actions inside Russia. Several times in recent years, Putin, himself, has justified his actions using elements of American society. For instance, he cited the case of Bernie Madoff to rationalize his treatment of Khodorkovsky. In addition, the same critics of America buy assets in the USA, and even often make the existential decision to leave Russia for America, forgoing their anti-Americanism of yesterday.

          If the refined intellectuals can fall to the infection of anti-Americanism, it is not so amazing that the Kremlin could easily foment xenophobia among ordinary Russians, and lure most of them into hatred of America. Indeed, all data have shown that the majority of the population—no less than two-thirds in April -May, 2013—consider the USA and its government to be Russia’s main enemy, and have accepted the Kremlin’s aspersions against America, when they proclaim its evil intentions to influence the political process in their country. Data from an April 2013 study revealed that only 9 percent of Russians want better relations with the USA. Contrarily, it is also true that the Kremlin has not managed to persuade the majority of Russians that America is a bad country, and even in 2013, 50-60 percent of Russians hold positive attitudes toward American society. Paradoxically or not, the average Russian often sees more positive features than sophisticated intellectuals and bureaucrats.

 Generally speaking, though, the Kremlin has managed to control the attitudes of all groups of the Russian population toward America, so far.


          Putin made anti-Americanism the core of his ideology, as well as the main instrument of the legitimization of his regime and the persecution of the opposition. All propaganda led by the Kremlin is now based on the thesis that Putin’s society is better (or at least no worse) than American society, and those who are critical of it are “foreign agents” or “agents of the State Department.”

The necessity of maintaining a high level of anti-Americanism dictates Putin’s foreign policy to a very great degree, which is primarily aimed at describing the USA as the main Russian enemy. Those in America who do not see the linkage between the hostile actions against America in the international arena and the role of anti-Americanism as the main instrument of the legitimization of Putin’s personal power will not understand the motivation of the Kremlin in the Syrian conflict or in dealing with Iran or North Korea.

Unlike all previous Russian leaders, Putin has demonstrated his full indifference to international public opinion, especially to the views of the American government and the American public on developments in Russia, and on his actions as the authoritarian ruler in particular. Since the main goal of his activity as the Russian president is the perpetuation of his personal power, the hardening of his regime, and the elimination of all possible opposition comes at a cost (discontent in the West with his politics), but this is much lower than the benefits this strategy brings (movement toward the restoration of the Soviet political order for the strengthening  of his personal regime).

The prospect for a change in attitude regarding anti-American ideology in Russia is rather bleak because Putin does not plan to leave the Kremlin in the next decade, and because he sees the USA as a power that will never endorse the restoration of the dictatorship in Russia. The USA can, indeed, improve its relations with Moscow but only on condition of supporting Putin’s claim to be the leader in Russia for the near future; a high cost for this country.



Январь 25, 2013

Kinship as an antidote to the moral vacuum in Russia

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 4:31 пп


Kinship as an antidote to the moral vacuum in Russia: the moment of truth with the law against the American adoption of sick children

Vladimir Shlapentokh

The Russian reaction to the Magnitsky Act—a challenge to the fundamental morals accepted by the world

 Whenever the Kremlin starts a new anti-American campaign, slogans about Russian moral superiority over Americans take a place of honor. Russia, once again, proclaims itself the country of lofty moral ideals, while America is depicted as a society obsessed with money obtained by any means possible. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of the most important Russian guns in the fight to claim special Russian spirituality. In the 1970s, strongly encouraged by the Kremlin, Russian nationalists used the passage from The Brothers Karamazov in their anti-Western escapades suggesting that the people’s happiness is incompatible with the “torture [of] just one tiny creature, [one child]” and that it is impossible to “to raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears,” the idea being incompatible with American pragmatism and callousness.     

          With Putin’s arrival to power, the phrase “the tears of an innocent child” became a fixture in Russian anti-Western propaganda but we can confidently predict that it will now disappear until the leadership in the Kremlin changes. Indeed, Putin’s law forbidding the adoption of Russian children by Americans produced shock and ire, even among many pro-Putin journalists and politicians  

 Both Moskovskii Komsomolets, a Russian publication loyal to the regime, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, which consistently supports Putin,  published one article after another about the happy life of Russian children in American families, as if mocking the Kremlin. Alexei Venediktov, editor of the popular radio show Ekho Moskvy, contended that “the law is morally and ethically abominable [and] cannibalistic”.  Even a few of the members of the political elite, who are customarily obedient to the master of the Kremlin—like former deputy premier minister Alexei Kudrin expressed their indignation.

During a press conference on December 19, 2012, in an unprecedented action, Russian journalists, quite frankly, bombarded the self-confident president with questions about the adoptions of Russian children. None of the journalists hid their abhorrence of the law.

One article of the new law is particularly evocative of Dostoyevsky’s tears of the child. It means that the active adoption process of 46 children ended abruptly; children who had expected to go to the USA within weeks. (Moscow later softened its position and allowed the adoptions of children who already had official permission to leave the country to go through). Putin’s demagogic, and essentially dishonest, arguments in the favor of “the cannibalistic law” could only serve to convince the intellectual community that, in Putin, Russia has a leader who is impervious to the most basic moral values shared by Western civilization, and who will always use sophistry to justify any immoral act. Indeed, Putin has followed the Cold-War-era tactic, wherein Soviet officials deflected criticism over rights violations by citing seemingly comparable cases in Western countries.


Children in Stalin’s Gulag

When responding to questions with the suggestion that “others” behave even worse than the current masters of the Kremlin, Putin could, of course, have mentioned Soviet history. The law passed in 1935 stated that children 12 years and older could be executed if they committed an anti-Soviet act. At the same time, children of “enemies of the people,” aged 12 and up, could be interned in Gulag camps along with their parents, or sent to “special orphanages,” or deported to remote regions with their families. Those who were “free” were stigmatized by the system and often ostracized by the people. (I know the fate of these children from my own experiences in the late 1930s, having been the friend of two 11-year-old boys, Askold Kantorov and Vsevolod Laskin, whose fathers were executed as enemies of the people, and who suffered greatly until Stalin’s death). However, even with his commendations of Stalin as a great manager, Putin dared not remind the Russian public in 2012 of this heinous episode of Soviet history simply for the opportunity to show how he is much less cruel than the Soviet leaders of the past.

Stalin and Putin’s propaganda about their concern for children

Nevertheless, Putin has used the same cynical propaganda as Stalin. The Soviet propaganda described sending children and their parents to the Gulag as a sign that the Soviet system and its leader were the children’s best friend. Twisting his intentions to take away the orphans’ and, in particular, sick children’s chance for a better future, Putin declared that he would radically improve the lives of 654,000 orphans almost immediately. It is well known that orphanages in Russia are a real-life hell for these children. Nobody in Russia believes in Putin’s promises of reform.

 It was extremely characteristic that 420 (of 448) members of the State Duma voted for the “cannibalistic law,” showing the public their total lack of concern over any moral evaluation of their actions. In an article, Sergey Markov, a leading member of The United Russia, and one of the most ardent conveyers of the Kremlin’s mind, wrote 5 arguments for why Russia’s reaction to the Magnitsky Act was effective—never once mentioning what the Russian children who had the chance to be adopted in the USA will lose because of the Russian policy of revenge.  He and another consistent defender of any action by the Kremlin, Andrei Isayev, tried to use the debates on the adoption law as a terrain for a vitriolic accusation of the opposition—which organized “The march against scoundrels”—as people who are deeply anti-patriotic, and who want to sell Russian children to America.

A famous journalist, Alexander Minkin, proposed including all 420 members of the State Duma who voted for the law in the list of people who should not be greeted during encounters in public places. The fact that polls show that 56 percent of Russians support the rude anti-adoption law made no impression on the Russian public. In the last several years, Russians have stopped trusting their own polls—even Putin has mentioned his distrust of polls—since there is a widespread belief that the Russian respondents are insincere, and that there are flaws in the methodology of the Russian opinion firms that, in some cases, serve the Kremlin, who finances the polls. (Even the head of the best public opinion firm, the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, has expressed some doubts about the value of his own data on the adoption law, in view of the impact the official TV channels have on the Russian mind.)  However, even more impressive than the mistrusted poll’s results was the march of tens of thousands of Russians in Moscow on January 12, 2013, protesting against Putin’s law.   

The moment of truth –Putin and his elite are morally and ideologically “naked”

The “cannibalistic law,” forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans, was a moment of truth. It made it clear that those who rule Russia today are deprived of those traditional moral values that offer empathy for children and sick people. The case of the adoption law revealed, with no less potency, the indifference of Putin’s regime to the national interests of the country. It seemed that the Kremlin easily took this new step in the deterioration of Russian relations with the Western world. The case showed that the security of the country is not a priority for Putin’s Moscow. Instead, it appears that the fears his political elite had about access to their Western wealth are Putin’s most pressing problem.

Putin’s society does not a have a public ideology that people can use to evaluate the behavior of others, or to predict their behavior. It is remarkable that during his four-hour-long press conference on December 12, 2012, Putin never once mentioned anything related to ideology. The role of public ideology was very different in the USSR. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideology that comprised the interests of the state and its leading values were present not only in the minds of the Soviet apparatchiks, the KGB and the army officers, but also in the minds of ordinary people. Nothing like this has been observed in contemporary Russian society. The active role of the Orthodox Church in society could not mitigate the moral vacuum, as many sources have witnessed. (Only 3% trusted the Russian patriarch Cyrill in December 2012, compared with 65% who trusted Putin, even though the church held third place in trust among the various social institutions). During his press conference in December, Putin himself recognized that “Russian society suffers from a lack of moral cohesiveness,” and that the Russians are harsh to each other. But how can Russian society function without a public ideology and public morals?


Human interaction needs common moral rules

Russia’s law about the adoption of children brought back the issues of a lack of ideology on a full scale. We assert that Russian society has found a solution to this problem by accepting kinship as its main basis for morale.

  Indeed, any lasting human interaction supposes the existence of some common moral ground that makes it possible to assume the reaction of partners to the action of the individual. No one office or military unit can function if those who work and live together do not have common values, since they are unable to predict each other’s reactions to their deeds. One of the most important conditions for fruitful interactions among people is the belief that your partner—of any type—is not lying to you. In fact, only those groups whose members do not systematically lie to each other can be attractive to their members and contribute to creating order in society. Meanwhile, as prominent journalist Yulia Kalinina wrote, “lying and deception have become a norm of Russian life.” 

Kinship — an alternative to other systems of order

With the absence of elementary common moral values in the minds of the Russian political and economic elites, at least in comparison with the  Soviet society—a fact which is admitted by most researchers 11—Russia’s dominant class and society as a whole address the rules of kinship values as an alternative to other types of order. People in this relationship usually lie to each other much less frequently than to outsiders. This network of relatives and friends who are mutually loyal is the single moral material available for a society that has a weak or even absent state (“failed state”). What is more, when kinship is powerful, it introduces some order into the selection of cadres for bureaucracy and business. It creates some order for the process—you do not pick a person from off the street in order to make him minister—but it almost completely eliminates merit as the basis for the selection of officials, scholars, journalists, or even actors.

Various definitions of kinship embrace the close ties in society between those related by blood, and those who become relatives through marriage.At the same time, close friends gained through the mechanism of “befriending” can also be incorporated into the kinship. It was the Roman emperors from the Nerval-Antonine dynasty who are considered the first to have introduced the practice of expanding kinship through befriending, and adopting as a son, those whom they wanted to be their heirs (1st-2nd centuries AD). Biblical traditions and Russian folklore suggest that the brotherhood between friends can serve as a measure of close ties between people without blood ties. The network of kinship in different societies varies, depending on the relative role of pure relatives—by blood or marriage—and friends who can be somewhat equated to relatives by marriage.  

While kinship is often associated with a primitive culture in the public mind, tribal society’s views on kinship, particularly its “blood” component, are still an important part of even the most advanced societies, such as America. Putting aside the role of kinship in biological and social evolution, several contemporary authors still affirm that loyalty to the family—“moral gravity” (the concern for others)—means an individual tends to help members of the kinship, the family, first. Family members usually have more moral gravity; what Robert Nozick calls “ethical pull.” This kinship is respected in all monotheistic religions and in virtually all societies. It is not all that amazing that the role of family-run business is so important in the United States.

While kinship is a universal institution, its role in the contemporary world as the basis of order tends to diminish. The progress of democracy and capitalism weakens its importance, without destroying it, even in the Muslim world. Through a twist of history, however, this type of institution found a place for rejuvenation and for taking a crucial role in post-Soviet Russian society. Weber had supposed that by the end of the 19th century, modernization and rationalization would be hallmarks of future society, making impersonality, among other things, necessary. In the middle of the 1950s, Parsons followed Weber, insisting upon the retreat of traditionalism before universalism and modernization. The opposite of modernization happened in Russia after 1991.

The transition of totalitarian Russia toward a society based on kinship

The adoption law brought forth a formidable argument that contemporary Russia could function as a relatively orderly society only because when it moved from the moral and legal structure of the totalitarian state, it moved to a system based on kinship, rather than to a democratic, legal, Weberian order. The system of kinship in post-Soviet Russia made interactions between people possible when concerns for society on the whole were minimalized and the atomization of society and mistrust of social institutions came to the fore. Questions in mass surveys about responsibility for society are highly loaded, particularly in Russia due to its thousand-year cult of patriotism. Nevertheless, in August 2012, forty-five percent (and among young people, sixty-one percent) declared that they “do not feel responsibility for what is going on in the country”. Russians have very little trust in social institutions. In November 2012, the questions revealed the low level of trust Russians have for those bodies they turn to for help: no more than one-fifth of Russians trusted the police, courts, or local authorities. However, even more important is that Russians do not trust each other (if they are not part of their kinship): in August 2012, only 16 percent said that “they trust the majority of the people.” The level of trust drastically rises when people were asked about their trust for “people who surround them”—from 16 to 55 percent.

 Of no less significance, however, is the data indicating that, in their everyday lives, Russians help their relatives first (56 percent), then their friends (45 percent), then neighbors (30 percent), and only then would they help unknown people (16 percent), colleagues (14 percent), members of the religious community (2 percent), and members of the internet community (2 percent). .It is highly remarkable that young people (up to age 30) prefer to turn to relatives and friends even more than the older generations who were raised in the Soviet times (64 and 60 percent, versus 43 and 20 percent, respectively). No less important is the fact that Russians’ “voluntary activity” took place mostly in their residences. In 2012, 33 percent participated in refurbishing the multi-story buildings in which they lived, whereas only 4 percent took part in some social campaign like the collection of money. 

Putin’s state is not a mafia organization

Some authors are inclined to describe contemporary Russia as a model of the mafia. However, while the mafia model shares several common features with kinship, first and foremost giving so much attention to trust—Don Corleone and Tony Soprano made their families the core of their teams—its focus is on violence, which is not the main objective in traditional kinship relations. With its emphasis on trust, mafias are often ethnically centered because the members of an ethnic minority surrounded by other ethnic groups trust each other more than the people outside their ethnic group.

Two types of kinship

The role of kinship in Russia is very different as an instrument of the dominant class and for ordinary people. For the dominant class in Russia, kinship is primarily the instrument for obtaining positions in the bureaucracy and access to the budget. In this and in similar societies, kinship is an engine which generates corruption in all sectors of society. 

          For ordinary Russians, kinship means something entirely different. It is indeed social capital for them, as well as an important means to overcome the hostility of the bureaucracy and, at the same time, a way to use relatives and friends to skirt the law. This kinship network countervails a world where nobody can be trusted.

Both types of kinship, but particularly the first one, bode ill for the democratic future of Russia. In one case, kinship undermines economic and political competition in Russia; in another case, kinship encourages lawlessness in society. It also creates obstacles for social and economic progress. This role of kinship—the network of relatives and friends—actually played an important role in Soviet times (the famous Soviet “blat”).

          Of course, it is unreasonable to overestimate the ability of kinship to sustain solidarity in society. Since each clan in Russia is based on kinship, when there are conflicts between kinships, this institution can only make the war between clans even more fierce and implacable, like the struggle between different clans in post-Soviet Russia inside the so-called power ministries.

A good example is the fight that raged in the 1990s-2000s between different clans of the chekists, particularly between those who worked directly in the FSB and those who worked in the Federal Drug Control Agency and Customs Service; this fight took place with the participation of hundreds of officers.  In fact, the struggle around the company Three Whales was a fight between two clans—one headed by the deputy head of the Customs Service, Boris Gutin, and the other by the head of the FSB’s economic department, Yuri Zaostrovtsev. Several institutions—the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Drug Control Service—and their representatives joined in this struggle, siding with one of the two clans.

          Kinship does not guarantee the absence of mutual animosity between members of the same kinship groups. Many Russians explained the utter hostility by Putin and many people of the ruling elite toward Ksenia Sobchak, a daughter of a past patron of Putin who has turned into an oppositional figure, or to Gennadii Gudkov, a former KGB colonel who joined the opposition, as their being “traitors” to their clans.   

The history of kinship in post-Soviet Russia

     As a rule, the kinship system is a product of spontaneous development. Neither famous anthropologists nor historians writing about kinship discuss the time of the birth of kinship in one society or another. Vasily Klyuchevsky, a famous Russian historian, described kinship in the Middle Ages in Russia in detail, yet did not tell us exactly when it was born.     

After the revolution, kinship in the dominant class was mostly eradicated in all Slavic regions, and only continued in regions with Muslim populations, though without playing a leading role in the political fabric of society. It is true that the Soviet leaders built up a nomenclature system that included all the apparatchiks of high and middle ranks. However, its similarity with kinship was rather deceptive. To be accepted in the nomenclature, the candidate had to not only be loyal to the leader, but also had to be an ideological believer; a requirement that is absent for membership in the post-Soviet kinship. In addition, the influence of kinship on one’s admission to the Communist party and the nomenclature was insignificant.

At the same time, kinship, as mentioned above, played quite an important role for ordinary people in Soviet times. In some ways, kinship—the network of relatives and friends—was often more important than big money in satisfying the material needs of the population.

Kinship, privatization and the befriending of oligarchs

   Following the collapse of the Communist system and the catastrophic weakening of the state machine, it was almost natural for kinship in its broadest sense to become one of the main instruments to overcome chaos for Russian society. When the state’s property was up for grabs, it appeared almost natural for the officials who had a voice in the selection of owners to choose not only themselves but their relatives—children, spouses, and more distant relatives, as well as close friends—all those whom they could personally trust. It was Yeltsin who initiated this process when he openly made members of his family the owners of big assets of state property, practically turning his family into an official institution, thereby making the term “the family” key in the post-Soviet Russian political lexicon. Besides his “family,” Yeltsin found major material for the building of a kinship system among his former colleagues in the party and state apparatus. As shown in several studies, the relative role of “alien” elements was not very high. Moreover, the new personalities in the ruling elites, like Boris Berezovsky, almost immediately became the personal friends of Yeltsin and members of his family. To use the language of Facebook, the family almost immediately “friended” the leading oligarchs and elevated them to the ranks of relatives. Later, Putin “friended” Abramovich, Deripaska, Potanin, Vexeleberg and a few other oligarchs.  As a matter of fact, befriending was a leading instrument in the expansion of the role of kinship in the privatization process in the 1990s.  

Putin’s stage in the development of kinship: the role of the KGB; befriending as the major way of expanding kinship 

Putin contributed enormously to the expansion of kinship. Unlike Yeltsin, with his focus on the traditional source of kinship—the family—Putin saw the transformation of his former colleagues and friends, through the mechanism of befriending them, as a major source for the expansion his own system of kinship.

Paradoxical or not, Putin was the officer of an organization that nurtured the mutual loyalty of its fellows to each other, and considered the betrayal of a comrade as the highest moral crime. By refilling innumerable positions in government and business with former KGB agents, Putin could only augment the role of kinship as the bulwark of his society. According to Ol’ga Kryshtanovskaia, the leading Russian expert on elites, one quarter of the members of the ruling elite had previously worked for the KGB/FSB or the Main Intelligence Directorate of the army (the GRU). The second step in Putin’s expansion of kinship was inviting his former colleagues from the Leningrad period of his life into the system—people he studied with while at university and worked with in Sobchak’s administration. The people with whom Putin created the suspicious cooperative “The Lake” in the 1990s were the third source of the cadre for his kinship.

Almost every high official, particularly at the regional level, followed Yeltsin’s and Putin’s examples. As soon as a governor got his position, he almost immediately created his own kinship system. Consider, for instance, what happened during this decade. In the Omsk region, Governor Leonid Polezhaev’s “clan” was comprised of all his relatives, a typical phenomenon in most Russian regions, including small administrative units such as small cities and villages. In 2011, one of his sons, Konstantin, then a hospital director, was caught buying medical equipment fraudulently but did not suffer any consequences for his actions. In the same year, the governor’s daughter-in-law, Natelle, privatized a hospital and health resorts for herself, violating various laws. Another of the governor’s sons, Alexei, became a billionaire, using his father’s connections in the oil and gas business. Alexei’s wealth was equal to the two-year budget for the entire Omsk region. What is more, this businessman founded a company in Cyprus, which controls the water supply in Omsk. The company regularly raised the tariff for water in the region, which was prohibited by national law. This same son bought real estate in Florida too, a fact which was hidden from the Omsk citizens. Polezhaev also protected his more distant relatives, such as his niece and several of his spouse’s remote relatives. Some of them were members of the Omsk legislature and the owners of companies located in Omsk; these individuals are/were greatly exploiting their connections with the governor. The governor did not forget his friends either. As the local media found out, his old friend, Valerii Kokorin, embezzled budget money the governor had given to him to build a club for business people.


What Russians think about kinship

 Even without using this term, most Russians, in fact, strongly believe in the dominance of relationships based on kinship in political and economic life in their society. There is a great deal of evidence, direct and indirect, revealing the deep-rooted belief of Russians in the dominance of kinship as the main regulator of social relations in the country.

In November 2012, almost half of Russians (42 percent) were confident that “the current leadership relies only on the people devoted to them, ignoring their crimes.” Only 3 percent of Russians believed, in November 2012, that the selection of the cadres was “effective.” 

With belief in kinship as the main institution in the country, Russians do not take the promises of the Kremlin that it will effectively fight corruption seriously. The number of Russians who considered the anticorruption campaign launched by the Kremlin at the end of 2012 as only for show is 6 times higher than those who felt that way in November 2012.  Corruption is indestructible in the Russian mind because relatives and friends who have power would never punish each other.  

It is for exactly this reason that Russians were amazed by the demotion of Anatolii Serdiukov, Defense Minister, and clearly a member of Putin’s kinship group. This event was identified as the most spectacular of the last four months of 2012; much more important to them than Putin’s message to the parliament. In the same spirit, the Russians accepted Putin’s decision to allow officials retire after 70. For them, it was an action that supported Putin’s clan first.


Kinship combined with corruption is deeply spread and embraced in almost the entire dominant class, including the “creative class,” who are the most educated people in the country, as well as throughout the rest of Russian society. While corruption does not directly create kinship—many corrupt interactions are performed by people who barely know each other—kinship in the dominant class in Russian society almost automatically leads to corruption and nepotism. Indeed, kinship provides partners with ‘trust,’ the most important condition for making illegal deals. 

The kinship that prospers in Russia almost makes a Russian evolution toward democracy and a real market economy impossible. Kinship is a tremendous obstacle for progress in science and education. Ultimately, the dominance of kinship leads to the de-professionalization of society and, no less important, to the atomization and the near disappearance of common social values. Ironically, strong kinship is a real obstacle for the creation of an efficient national ideology, which demands sacrifice from those who espouse it. The hysterical calls from the new Euroasian ideology  from “Izborsk Club” (December 2012) are ridiculous. Uniting the best-known pro-Putin ideologues and headed by Alexander Dugin, this group demanded the immediate restoration of the Soviet Union, and the alliance of the Orthodox Church, and Stalinists.  

The movement toward the Weberian ideal as a political and social factor took several centuries in Europe, exemplifying the gradual process of the weakening of kinship. In contemporary history, the kinship system was only swept away in two cases—during the October Revolution in Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China. The success of the Cultural Revolution was especially remarkable because it happened in a society with a cult of Confucius’ philosophy. Russia is hardly facing a new revolution and has no chance of diminishing the future role of kinship, with all its implications. Kinship is a formidable obstacle to Russia’s progress in almost all spheres of social life. 


Январь 21, 2013

Strong and weak: a dilemma of a contemporary society?

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 7:05 пп

Strong and weak: a dilemma of a contemporary society?

Vladimir Shlapentokh and Jeff Oliver


For as much as Nietzsche continues to be respected in philosophy, his ideas are seldom considered as having direct relevance to our lives.  We cannot accept Nietzsche’s cult of “Übermench” and his contempt for weak people, which ideas Ayn Rand propagated (and not without success) in America in the 1940s-1970s. These ideas also came to prominence during the recent presidential campaign.

 However, Nietzsche’s attitude toward weak people (Americans in the age of political correctness prefer to talk about “vulnerable” people) is more complicated than his detractors suggest. The division of Western society into two strata of the population— one, socially strong , relatively well secured, and self-sustaining people, and the other socially weak, quite vulnerable and expecting help from society has many implications. In recent decades, for various reasons   this division, along with the traditional and very important stratifications of people such as poor and rich, the rulers and those who are ruled have become more acute than in the past, and the size of “the weak stratum,”, the notorious 47 percent in the parlance of Mitt Romney, has increased in the USA as well as in all Western countries. As matter of fact, as is the title of Brazilian serial “Rich people cry too,”, there is the legion of “weak people”  among the members of the elites— abused wives and children, and humiliated relatives –not to mention their servants and employees even if their salaries are high.   

The origin of this division and generated by its inequality however, is highly disputed. Is it the result of hard work by one group of people compared to others? Is it a result of greater opportunities available to some compared to others (such as the environment in which one is brought up)? Is it the result of different family histories or genetic heritages? In our opinion, the “strong-weak” division is caused (in addition to other factors) by the fact that people are equipped with varying degrees of different types of resources. These resources may be material or economic, but also may be resources which are not material including social status, intellect, education and knowledge of certain things (for instance, of laws and customs of the country of residence), skills, health, and social connections, even physical strength and sexual attraction. The dominance of one individual over another in the amount of any of these resources provides power and opportunity to abuse it.

Whatever its origin, inequality is a very complex topic which does not tolerate a simplistic approach typical for Nietzsche and his modern-day followers (like certain Tea Party extremists) or leftist radicals. Inequality is an extraordinarily important pre-condition for competition and progress in many spheres including science, art and sport, but at the same time it creates tension, prompts conflicts, and overall undermines the unity of society (which faces many threats in the contemporary world). 

Most authors discussing inequality usually have in mind big groups –geographic regions, social classes, ethnic, racial and cultural groups, genders and age cohorts. The inequalities which people face in the big world are “anonymous.” In the “big anonymous world” people suffer from the actions of others whom they do not meet or even know personally.

We assert that this “interpersonal” abuse –a very frequent development in contemporary world — has its roots in the unequal distribution of various resources among individuals.  It is estimated, for instance, that between 500,000 and 5 million elderly persons are abused in some way each year in the US alone. While the problem of elder abuse has become more well-known, it is perhaps a less well-known fact that roughly two-thirds of all victims are abused by a close family member such as a child or spouse.

The severity of bullying (a form of abuse by peers with whom the child regularly interacts rather than a “faceless other”) is echoed in the estimated 3 million victims of bullying each year. Bullying is just one representation of the way in which students possess different resources like physical strength or the social prestige of parents to abuse others.

The existence of hierarchy even in small groups and the ensuing uneven distribution of power often leads to serious conflicts and open abuse of power. In some ways, those who hold commanding positions even in a small group, the head of a family (if it exists), a professor, a head of government, a clerk or even a business official can use his or her control over scarce resources (such as the right to issue orders and punish the disobedient) to get additional benefits. These benefits may be anything from sexual pleasure to extracting money from those who had no choice but to obey to them.

It would be wrong to say that the inequality in the distribution of resources in small social cells and its numerous negative implications are ignored in American society. We can cite several institutions, governmental and civil , which  try to protect  abused women and children as well as those whose targets of concern are the elderly  and immigrants and other individuals who are “oppressed” and “ afflicted” in Dostoyevsky’s words .

However, it is evident that the attention of our society to the sufferings of millions of its compatriots in school and family, in hospital and in office is not enough. Spouse abuse has been ignored for too long and too little is known about how to prevent it. Similarly, the full scope of elder abuse is not known, but can only be estimated due to under-reporting. Even rapes and other abuses between men and women within the armed forces are under-reported. American society should enhance its effort to fight the abuse of those who lack the resources which can protect them.




Декабрь 6, 2012

The Privatization of God by Putin

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 6:26 пп

The Privatization of God by Putin

Vladimir Shlapentokh



The number and variety of tricks Putin has used to insure his power and justify his legitimacy as the Russian leader surpasses those of all who ruled Russia before him in both their inventiveness and diversity. This is certainly true about the Soviet leaders; Putin’s trickery even surpasses Stalin’s, with all his tactics for removing his rivals in the late 1920s. Western politicians are, of necessity, forced to participate in a complicated parliamentary struggle, and in a climate of unhinged public opinion. However, their ingenuity pales in comparison with the cunning of Putin’s lieutenants.

Two major events during Putin’s rule determined Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, whose single goal was the maintenance his own personal power: the Orange Revolutions in some post-Soviet republics in 2003-4, and the mass protest movement from December 2011 to May 2012. The Orange Revolutions led to Putin’s decision to dismantle aspects of democracy in society and take a hostile position toward the West—which was, in his opinion, behind these revolutions. The mass protests made him even more aggressive toward the opposition, and highlighted the fact that the regime does not have its own ideology. In the winter of 2011-12, Putin saw, probably more clearly than ever before, that the lack of ideology necessary to legitimize his regime was a major problem, despite the high price of oil and his well-paid special police teams.


Putin’s technology for keeping power

The roster of political maneuvers used by Putin and his people to prevent the success of rivals is indeed very impressive. Besides rigging the election at both the campaign and voting stages, this roster includes the creation and dismantling (when useful) of the various fictitious oppositional political parties that have, supposedly, initiated attacks on the Kremlin and its party, “United Russia.” The fictional oppositional parties emulate critiques from a nationalist position (e.g., “Fatherland” headed by Putin’s acolyte Dmitry Rogozin), from a liberal perspective (e.g., the “Party of the Right Cause” headed by various Kremlin’s myrmidons, the “Civic Force” party headed by the official bureaucrat Mikhail Barzhevsky, and “Business Russia” headed by Boris Titov), and from the left (e.g., the “Just Russia” party headed by Putin’s crony, Sergei Mironov).

Putin’s strategy has also included transforming the Communist party into a pawn in his political games. Putin’s political technologists can boast of the subtle manipulation of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party, which was created by the KGB in 1990, pretending to oppose the government but faithfully serving Yeltsin’s and Putin’s regimes. Putin’s operators initiated various supposedly spontaneous movements, including those that targeted the youth, such as the “Nashi” (Ours) movement (founded in 2005). He also aimed at all strata of the population through “The Popular Front.” These technologists, together with big money, can be proud of their success in having recruited many of the most sophisticated intellectuals as Putin’s propagandists. Putin and his masters of political intrigue were able to advance bogus political rivals and seduce even very rich people in Russia like Mikhail Prokhorov, who readily obeys any task from the Kremlin. As fake critics of the regime, Prokhorov was joined by Alexei Kudrin, former deputy premier minister and Putin’s personal friend. Also joining in the ranks of the illusory opposition was Anatolii Chubais, Putin’s Minister. These people comprise a pseudo-liberal team that Putin can use as a last protection—an alternative against real opposition—when he is cornered and thinking only of how to avoid the fate of Mubarak or Gaddafi.


The Orthodox Church’s Ideology –the major reliable ally of the regime

More important than all of the previously discussed political tricks is Putin’s decision to use the Orthodox Church as an instrument in solidifying his power. Indeed, Putin has been haunted since the beginning by the lack of a viable ideology and the solid legitimization of his rule. There has not been an ideology (or a “national idea” in Moscow’s parlance) with which he was able to unite Russians and provide everybody with a directive of how to behave and act in the absence of clear-cut commands from the Kremlin.

Despite its erosion over the course of Soviet history, the Soviet ideology performed this function quite well until its end. Working all 12 years of Putin’s term, his aides have not achieved the goal of offering their master even a draft of a national ideology. This task was not solvable because it was impossible to combine all of Putin’s statements, which are mutually exclusive and contradictory, like the praise of private property and the market on one side, with the justification of state intervention in the economy and the confiscation of private property of undesirable people on the other. It was impossible to reconcile the praise of democracy with the commendation of the Soviet past (Stalin and the regular broadsides against the West) ; the slightly hidden nationalism; and the rude denunciation and persecution of the critics of the regime. The radical shift to an alliance with the Church has solved the problem, as pointed out by noted ethnographer Yurii Semenov, “the authorities’ instruments but Orthodox rhetoric.”

Figuratively speaking, Putin put God at his service. He “privatized” God in his personal interests in the same way he privatized the major television channels, as well as the oil and gas companies, as a part of his clandestine domain. As a part of the deal, the Orthodox Church (again without historical precedence) received extensive power to intervene in the ideological and political life of the country. The involvement of the Orthodox Church in Russian politics and ideology helped Putin strengthen his regime, and at the same time encouraged obscurantism in society and the decline of science, contributing to the flight of the best minds from Russia as well as to the country’s isolation by the West.

 Of course, it is possible to contend that one ideology exists in Russia, whose major goal is the accumulation of wealth for Russians, from their leaders down to ordinary people. However, such an ideology is essentially deeply individualistic, and is actually destructive in terms of consolidating a society’s public ideology around what a desirable society should do.

 Individualistic ideology, with greed as its main value, appeals to the anti-social instincts, encourages the atomization of society and is deeply hostile to state and order. In fact, all secular ideologies prompt the bureaucracy and all of a country’s citizens to act in the interests of the society, even without commands from the ruling elite (although the efficacy of these ideologies is another matter.) None of the secular ideologies—liberal, Communist or radical nationalist—suited Putin, whose behavior is ostensibly aimed only at the maintenance of his personal power and his wealth. Even the relatively mild nationalist ideology, with patriotism as its main value, which Putin has tried to regenerate since his arrival to power, could not gain real support in a deeply fragmented and politically indifferent society. Most Russians today are deeply indifferent to the national interests of their country, because they can see the ruling elite is completely absorbed with the maintenance and expansion of their power and illegally acquired wealth.

The Orthodox religion as an ideology appears more consistent than any other versions of ideologies offered by Putin’s aides, “sovereign democracy” among them. All other secular ideologies are a threat to Putin’s personal power. By accepting, de facto, the Orthodox religion as a national ideology, and demonstrating his personal allegiance to the Church and friendship with the Patriarch, Putin hopes to significantly improve his political standing in the country, and to expand the ideological basis for his relations with the majority of Russians, which has significantly deteriorated in the last several years. 

Indeed, the official ideology of the Russian Orthodox Church satisfies Putin in every way. This ideology not only includes the various “pure” religious postulates which if—and only if — implemented can indeed boost morals in society, it also provides political directives that are fully acceptable to Putin’s regime. Of all the possible ideologies, the ideology offered by the Church best helps Putin to solve his most important problem—the legitimization of his regime.

First, it sermonizes about obedience to political power and supports the cult of state, along with an unwavering rejection of a societal focus on the individual and human rights. As patriarch Cyril said, speaking before students at MoscowUniversity: “It is the Orthodox tradition to pray for the tsars and all superiors.” He added that “the State is a sacred institute in the mentality of our people.”[i] The Church not only avoided participation in the pro-democratic movement in 2011-2012, it openly condemned it as a threat to the stability of the country, and openly condemned the participants of the protest movement, using Soviet terminology, “enemies of people.” (On the other hand, the Church never condemned those of their dignitaries who cooperated with the KGB. ) What can be more pleasant to Putin than the Church’s regular assault against democracy? Putin can also only be delighted with the attitudes of the Church toward the West. From the Patriarch to the ordinary priest, the West is described as a satanic power.

 Of great merit to Putin is the fact that the clerical ideology avoids critiquing any problems in Russian society. Aside from a few empty phrases, the Church has not denounced corruption and criminalization in the country, or matters relating to the material polarization of Russian society. Indeed, it would be impossible, since Russians consider the church itself to be a deeply corrupted organization. Defending itself and the regime, the Church suggests that the fight against corruption in society and in the Church is equal to a fight against the state and the church as institutions.

Making religion his main ideological instrument, Putin has transformed the Church into an organization that resembles the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party, and the patriarch Cyril into a sort of Soviet ideological guru like Mikhail Suslov. As theologian and publicist Yakov Krotov said, “the top Church hierarchs perform the same role as Marxists under Bolsheviks”.


Ordinary Russians – a respect for Orthodoxy even with low religious services attendance  


When choosing religion as his major ideological weapon, Putin, of course, took into account the rather positive attitudes of most Russians toward Orthodox religion and the Church. In a twist of history, Putin’s regime benefited from the harsh treatment of the Church by the Soviet order, with the image of the Russian church as a martyr in Soviet history.

Research shows that, according to Levada’s survey in October 2012, 79% of Russians consider themselves religious. However,most Russians are dubious about the sincere religiosity of their countrymen (84%). Indeed, only a minority of them—no more than 10-15%—attend Church (8% at least several times a month). However, with this data, there is no doubt that there is respect for religion and that the Church is held in high esteem, a fact that is exploited by the regime. Many Russians now wear the cross on their body, an action which was almost impossible in Soviet times. The majority of Russians see the Church as the “main force for the spiritual revival of the country,” and as a moral authority (about 60%). The number of Russians who share this view has almost doubled since 1994. Three quarters of Russians now think that “the Church saved the country in difficult times and now it should do it again”. The pro-Church activity of Putin’s state is actually supported by two-thirds of Russians.

Moreover, two-thirds support hardening punishments “for actions insulting religion” and support the relevant law passed by the State Duma. On the whole, society is tolerant of the personal enrichment of the clerical dignitaries, despite several publications in the liberal media.

          Even more important is the fact that the Church is the most trusted institution in the country (as much as the president), and surpasses the army. According to the Levada center, 49% trusted both the president and the Church in June 2012, compared with 41% who trusted the army. The patriarch also enjoys a high popularity rating. A reasonable speculation is that, in the case of a national emergency, the patriarch would be first, or at least second, in addressing the nation on the issue on TV, with suggestions on what should be done to overcome the national crisis.

Certainly, with a rise in the levels of education, enthusiasm about religion—particularly about the Church and its dignitaries—diminishes. Many educated Russians are greatly irritated with the expansion of church activity in society, and have mocked the Church and the patriarch incessantly on the Internet. As a result, the growth of the Church as an ally to the regime has further polarized the Russian intellectual community. Those who chose to be loyalists show their fealty to the Church. Those who are enemies of the regime take an anticlerical position and, with the growing political and economic power of the Church, their hostility toward the Church has increased. The critical attitudes of many Russian intellectuals toward the Orthodox Church today show a large contrast with the position of the Russian educated class under the last decades of Communist rule. Then, the respect for the church, which was persecuted by the authorities, was included in the code of conduct of the Russian intellectuals, though, ironically, most of them were atheists.  

The ideological support of the regime by the Church

Having abandoned the idea of the spreading its own secular ideology, and having ignored the constitutional separation of church and state (in some cases, Putin has supported it directly  or has twisted the concept of the separation of church and state to such a degree that he finally praised the total coalescence of the two institutions ), the regime has expended great effort in entrenching the Orthodox activity in each segment of Russian society. With the Patriarch’s slogan about “the coalescence of the Church with society state”—the regime officially launched “the Christianization” of the country. Now, whereas a position in the Communist nomenclature required one to conspicuously refuse to observe Orthodox rituals or to identify himself or herself with the Church, the current government’s close ties with the church (in Russian parlance, to be “accepted by the church”) calls for the opposite, which signals a demonstration of loyalty to the regime. One has no chance of making a career in Putin’s Russia without showing respect for the church.  The amusing thing is that in both cases—the Soviet and Putin’s—it turned out that only ordinary people who held no position in the state hierarchy were free from pressure by the state on religious matters. The transformation of former members of the Soviet nomenclature into Orthodox believers weirdly resembles the flight of cynical Roman aristocrats from paganism into Christianity, in order to save their positions and wealth, when it became the state religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  

The high dignitaries of the state, starting with Putin, regularly attend major church services, and Putin has demonstratively executed the Orthodox rite of crossing himself. This ritual has become a part of political life in the country. Each new church, official building, or new production asset is now blessed in a special ceremony attended by a high official of the government. Vladimir Putin has taken part in the blessing ceremony of several holy sites. He was among many governmental and Church dignitaries who attended the ceremony of blessing a new Church complex in Usovo (Moscow region) in 2010. It has been highly touted by the media that Putin has his own personal spiritual priest, Father Tikhon (Oleg Shevkunov before taking his vows). Putin’s visits to monasteries and churches have also been highly publicized in the official media. 

In May 2012, the head of the nuclear corporation, Sergei Kirienko, the Federal center director Valentin Kostikov, and the local bosses participated in the opening of a new cathedral in Sarov, the main nuclear center in Russia. Kirienko spoke eloquently, with the verve of a real preacher: “It is not often that such a center of security and state is created as here at Sarov, the historical center of spiritual power of Russia” (the first Sarov Church was founded in 1706; it closed in 1927 after being plundered).

The government has also permitted the full-scale penetration of the Church in the educational system. The collaboration between local authorities and the Church has become a standard in society. The church received full freedom to create Orthodox schools in the country, even if, paradoxically, the bureaucratic obstacles of state and church hinder the expansion of the religious educational system, in addition to there being a great shortage of teachers able to talk professionally about religion. However, even with all these obstacles it is important to note that the church has aggressively entered into the whole system of education. While the regime has not, so far, ordered the Bible to be taught in schools, it has allowed a sort of substitute—“The Basics of Orthodox Culture.” The cases of interaction between Church and schools have multiplied. Thus, at a meeting arranged by the Church eparchy in Kaluzhsk in August 2011, the head of the educational department of a Borovsk district declared that “cooperation with the clerical institutions in the moral education of children is a priority in the work of the authorities.” This bears an amusing resemblance to a similar narration during Soviet times; at that time, instead of the Church, they referred to the Communist party. It was decided that each school in the Kaluzhsk district would be served by a priest, who would participate in teaching a course in “The Basics of Orthodox Culture” and in the preparation of the Orthodox ceremonies. Many schools have introduced the teachings of the Orthodox religion, despite there being a high proportion of non-Russian students in the schools. Equally important is that a position has been created for a priest in all military units—including the army, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the FSB—and that Church buildings have gone up on the properties of the various universities. The creation of a theological department at the famous Engineer-Physical Institute, which prepares scholars and engineers for the nuclear industry, was a shock, even to contemporary Russians, who have become accustomed to the Orthodox offensive.

Like the department of propaganda of the Central Committee, the Church is practically (if not formally) endowed with the right of censorship, which is treated as if it were legal by the central authorities as well as by local institutions. Vladimir Pastukhov addressed the issue of the Church’s censorship in his article “The Country on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” in which he talked about the Church which  attacked “all oases of cultural growth.” One typical example is that Rostov’s authorities banned the opera Jesus Crisis –Superstar in 2012.  The Church inspired a law that would invoke punishment for actions and words that could be considered hostile to religion, as noted by Alexander Nevzorov in his article “Orthodoxy or Life,” who declared the Church an open enemy to freedom of speech and an advocate of obscurantism.

Putin’s regime has also intensely supported the growth of the material basis of the Church. With the help of the state, hundreds of churches have been built throughout the country. In the Moscow region, the Church plans to build 600 cathedrals in 2012. With the total support of the state, the Church has ousted a variety of cultural institutions from their buildings, claiming ownership.




The political activity of the Church in the regime’s favor

The Church provides the regime not only with an ideology but also, in many ways, with direct support for the authorities.

Feeling like a powerful political actor, the Church has directly intervened in the law-making process. In the fall of 2012, the Church demanded that the Civil Code include, for example, freedom from paying rent on holy land, including buildings, as well as immunity from bankruptcy. Several of the Church’s demands were satisfied by the State Duma. 

The Church openly supported the regime in the recent election campaign. Not only did it support Putin’s party in the election, in February 2011, the Orthodox Church permitted priests and all other Church dignitaries to participate in the election as candidates themselves supporting the Kremlin. The Patriarch openly declared that he supported Putin during the 2012 presidential campaign.

With the help of the state, the Church has created its own media, similar to a newspaper, called Vera i slovo (Faith and Word),  and supports several very aggressive nationalistic movements like Sacred Russia, Georg’s Orthodox Alliance and others.

 The Church has aggressively infiltrated all state structures in the country in a way that resembles the Soviet Communist party, which had its units in each cell of Soviet society. The patriarchy regularly invites high officials to its Moscow headquarters and has also awarded some of them with Church medals.

What is more, the Church has had a strong influence on the political parties. Some of them have proclaimed their fealty to Orthodox fundamentalism. The Rodina—the Motherland partyis regarded as the political hand of the Church. At the suggestion of the Kremlin, the Church even had some success in penetrating The Right Cause party, which was the most well-known liberal organization of the past two decades. In an expansion of their activities, the Church gave some informal support in 2012 for the creation of volunteer guards, whose task was the protection of Orthodox values. The Church has also helped the regime with foreign policy. The evident goals of the Patriarch’s visits to the Ukraine were to increase the influence of Kremlin politics on the leadership of this republic.   


Cordial interaction between Putin and the Patriarch

In the past, Kremlinologists tried to measure the importance of Soviet politicians by their closeness to the supreme leader. Those who most frequently accompanied him to various ceremonies or stayed near him at Lenin’s mausoleum were declared to be second to the general secretary in the country. By this logic, patriarch Cyril could claim to play the role of Molotov under Stalin in the 1930s, or Suslov under Brezhnev in 1960s-1970s. Putin and Cyril have never lost opportunities to praise each other. It is absurd to talk about a possible conflict between Putin and Cyril, as some analysts have attempted to predict. The Patriarch is no more than an instrument in Putin’s politics, even if Putin publicly kisses the ritual objects held by the Patriarch’s hand, as demanded by ceremony.


Pussy Riot

The case of Pussy Riot in 2012 revealed the depth of the collusion between the Orthodox Church and Putin’s regime. Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk-rock group founded in 2011. Three members of the group staged a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior last fall. The central part of their performance, which lasted only a few minutes and was stopped by the guard, was chanting the lyrics “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!» The women said their protest was directed also at the Orthodox Church leader’s support for Putin, who was elected for a third term as Russia’s president two weeks later. Two of the three women were incarcerated on March 3, 2012, and the third on March 16. They stayed in prison until October, when they were sentenced to two years of imprisonment (one was freed on probation).

          While the majority of Russians supported the harsh sentences meted out to these young women from the punk group “Pussy Riot” for their behavior in the Church, many Russian intellectuals and international public opinion have condemned the decision of a Moscow court to severely punish three young women for “offense to the Orthodox religion.” Putin pretended to ignore the fact that he, personally, was the target of the punks’ action.  However, the international condemnation of this highly publicized punishment did not prevent the Kremlin from endorsing the severe sentence simply because Putin’s total support for the Church carries much more importance than any other considerations.


The cost of the alliance

Permitting the Church to play a formidable role in Russian life, the regime, or the country carries an enormous cost that will affect development in Russia for many years to come.

          In the opinion of many observers, the new holy alliance, which clearly strengthened the course of further alienating the West and democracy, has pushed the country toward obscurantism. Russia experienced a direct anti-civilization period under Tsar Alexander the Third after the murder of his father by the “populists” in 1881, as well as under Stalin in the aftermath of the war. The Kremlin was blinded by the nationalist desire to present Russia’s science as superior over the West’s and, on the eve of Stalin’s death, vehemently attacked Darwin’s theory and the theory of relativity.

          In 2011-2012, Russian analysts began talking of Putin’s Russia shift, not toward the Soviet past but rather to its Middle Age status, before the rule of a tsar who loved Europe, as did Peter the Great.  The various prejudices, like a belief in various supernatural forces, which had declined significantly in Soviet society have returned en mass in contemporary Russia, even if the Orthodox Church supposedly rejects at least some of them. The number of people who believed in some of the prejudices has doubled. The rumors about the end of the world on December 21, 2012, when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close, has not influenced as many people in a country as it has in Russia.  The New York Times  related (December 1,2012) how the Russian government was forced to intervene; its minister of emergency situations said that he had access to “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth,” and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December.

          Vladimir Pastukhov, a British-Russian researcher, suggested in October 2012 that Putin’s Russia is moving to “the Middle ages clerical and criminal state.” Some analysts have gone so far as to say that Putin “turned Russia into a country of fools.” Certainly, Putin’s Russia is now only at the first stage of a move toward the Middle Age’s intellectual climate, and continues to take one step after another in this direction.

          The entrance of the Orthodox Church as a fully fledged ideological, and even political, actor has helped accelerate the decline of science in the country. As the Russian Nobel prize winning physicist Zhores Alferov noted in the book “Power Without Brains: The Retreat of Science from State,” the marriage of the Kremlin with the Church was accompanied by the divorce of the state with science. Both developments have encouraged an outburst of aggressive ignorance in society—consider the multiplication of various absurd projects like those of Victor Petrik, who claimed to have invented various miraculous devices but was mocked by scholars, and the proposal to organize a discussion on the creation of a perpetuum mobile in Skolkovo in 2012. There is no doubt that the clericalization of the country has accelerated the flight of the best minds away from Russia. Still, it is no less remarkable that the Moscow court dealing with the punk group Pussy Riot justified its condemnation of the young women with references to theLaodician and Trull sobors  of the 4th and 7th centuries.

An unintended cost of active protection of the Orthodox Church by the state in a multinational country like the Russian Federation is the encouragement of Islamic fundamentalism. Activists demanding equality with the Orthodox Church have expanded Islamic fundamentalism in republics with Muslim populations. The Chechen republic is a good example. The activities of the Orthodox Church have helped the president of the Chechen republic, Ramazan Kadyrov, to justify the Islamization of the region and de facto separation from the Russian Federation; the activities of the Orthodox Church have had the same effect on other Muslim regions. Among them are such important regions as the Tatar republic. 



The close alliance of Putin’s regime and the Orthodox Church, with its aggressive anti-Western stance, hostility toward democracy, and contempt for science has had a growing impact on Russian society. Since the Church enjoys high prestige among a majority of Russians, its active political and ideological roles strengthen the anti-democratic trend in the country and its isolation from the West. At the same we do not see the positive moral impact of the Church on the every day life of the Russians.

However,it is unreasonable to exaggerate the influence of the Church on the political process in Russia, and to even talk about the ascension of “Orthodox Nazism,” as previously suggested by some authors. Whatever the intervention of the Church in the political and ideological life of Russia, this institution remains under the full control of the Kremlin and will only do Putin’s bidding. So far, Putin’s regime, with its authoritarian policies, has tried, and will continue to try, to control not only the Orthodox Church but also the nationalist and leftist organizations which, along with the liberal movement, present a threat to Putin’s personal power. Only big external factors (like a sudden decline in the price of oil) and internal factors (like a technological catastrophe) can undermine the political stability of the regime. The Orthodox Church, as has been the case throughout Russian history, remains no more than the compliant instrument of the Russian leaders.  


Октябрь 8, 2012

Renown Russian-American scholar Vladimir Shlapentokh protests mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 12:19 дп



Renown Russian-American scholar Vladimir Shlapentokh protests mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists

By BBGWatcher on 07 October 2012 in Featured News, Hot Tub Blog, Statements with 1 Comment

BBG Watch Commentary

Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University

Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology, Michigan State University

Renown Russian-American sociologist and Michigan State University professor Vladimir Shlapentokh, who launched objective social polling in the Soviet Union, emigrated to the United States and later studied world attitudes toward the U.S. in the aftermath of 9/11, has written a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) protesting against the mass firing of Radio Liberty Russian Service journalists and broadcasters at the station’s bureau in Moscow. Radio Liberty was reporting on sociological research not covered by the Kremlin-controlled state media in Russia. Professor Shlapetokh described Radio Liberty, along with a private Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, as “the last bastions in the fight for vanishing freedom of speech in the country.”

Radio Liberty is financed by American taxpayers and managed from Prague, Czech Republic, by top executives of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), who in turn report to the BBG, a federal agency in Washington.

“My reaction [to the firings] was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty, Professor Shlapentokh wrote to members of the bipartisan BBG board in Washington.

The decision to fire almost the entire staff of the Radio Liberty Moscow bureau — about forty journalists, broadcasters, online content editors, video editors and technicians — was made by RFE/RL President Steven Korn. It is not clear how much he told BBG members who hired him about the scope of the mass dismissals, which produced a wave of negative media publicity in Russia, a statement of concern from Mikhail Gorbachev, and a letter of protest from a group of prominent Russian human rights activists led by Lyudmila Alexeeva.

Sources told BBG Watch that RFE/RL President Korn and his associates assured BBG members and BBG officials that Alexeeva and other human rights and opposition leaders were confused about the cause and the nature of the firings and that the Russian media is no longer interested in the story. Mr. Korn reportedly said that the whole controversy will die down completely in a week or two. One of the fired journalists was Radio Liberty’s highly respected human rights reporter Kristina Gorelik who on the day of her dismissal was interviewing Lyudmila Alexeeva.

Another fired journalist Veronica Bode hosted the program “Public Opinion” focusing on the protest movement in Russia. It was the only program in any form of media in Russia devoted entirely to reporting on and studying civil society. “However, on September 21, 2012 my project on the radio was silenced, and I, along with dozens of colleagues, – fired. The ‘updated’ Radio Liberty apparently doesn’t need this kind of reporting,” Ms. Bode wrote to BBG members. “How are we to survive in a country where many of our compatriots consider us enemies because we have worked for so many years for an American radio?,” she asked in her letter. Professor Shlapentokh made a similar point, “All people fired by Washington are already labeled ‘foreign agents’, who will have no chance to find the job under existing circumstances.” Ms. Bode also informed the BBG board that among those fired by Mr. Korn were journalists of pre-retirement age, single mothers with many children, and some who are physically disabled.

But according to inside sources, Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who is reportedly a personal friend of President Obama and acts as the interim BBG chairman, has been defending Mr. Korn’s personnel and other decisions as justified on strategic and business grounds and similar to what he is doing at SONY. Mr. Korn was previously accused of referring privately to some of his employees as “old white guys” and publicly to a student employed by the BBG as “cute high school intern.”

The sudden personnel action, described by some of the fired journalists as a “special operation,” which involved the use of guards to bar entry to the building and to escort fired employees, was overseen by RFE/RL Vice President Julia Ragona and the station’s law firm in Moscow.

The fired employees said they were subjected to intense psychological pressure to sign voluntary termination agreements. They condemned RFE/RL management’s actions as a violation of their personal dignity and rights, as well as a betrayal of the broadcaster’s image in Russia and its human rights mission. Some who have worked for Radio Liberty for twenty years were not allowed to say good bye to their radio listeners and website visitors. Guards prevented them from accessing their computers. One of the dismissed was a disabled employee, web editor Aleksey Kuznetsov, who after a stroke was allowed by the previous management to work mostly from home. He is the son of a Russian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, also a former Radio Liberty journalist and author of a famous book, Babi Yar, which for the first time exposed the Holocaust of Soviet Jews to general readership in the Soviet Union and in the West.

One knowledgable Russia expert described the events in Moscow as a “crime aimed against Radio Liberty’s well-known brand and tradition as one of America’s most effective human rights, foreign policy and public diplomacy tools in Russia, and a crime against human decency.”

RFE/RL executives claim they went out of their way to treat the fired employees with respect and gave them generous severance pay. In a statement posted on the RFE/RL website, Mr. Korn attributed the firing to the loss of a medium wave (AM) frequency in Moscow and the need to transition to digital media. Some journalists who were not fired resigned in protest to show solidarity with their colleagues and described Mr. Korn’s statement as a “mockery.” Several sent letters to BBG members telling them that RFE/RL executives and the company’s lawyers had told them they had no choice but to sign separation agreements and would be fired anyway even if they did not.

The dismissed journalists point out that many of those fired were in fact responsible for Radio Liberty’s outstanding multimedia website and attribute the mass firing to Mr. Korn’s decision to hire Russian-American writer Masha Gessen to be the new director of the Russian Service and the move of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau to a new modern facility in a building which also houses former Soviet propagandist Vladimir Posner‘s television operation. Gessen accused Victor Shenderovich, a famous satirist whom Professor Shlapentokh mentions in his letter, of slandering her for suggesting a link between her and the firings of Radio Liberty journalists. She said it was not her decision, but some of the fired journalists point out that while working as an outside consultant for Mr. Korn, she authored an evaluation of the RFE/RL Moscow bureau with a focus on its Internet activities and social media outreach.

Since the new Radio Liberty facility in Moscow, which reportedly cost over one million dollars to construct, is co-located with Vladimir Posner’s School for Television Excellence («Школу телевизионного мастерства» — not in the same space but in the same building) to educate and promote young journalists, the firing of Radio Liberty journalists and moving the anti-Soviet pro-democracy station that was now deprived by Mr. Korn of its highly-respected staff and reputation to a building linked with a former Soviet propaganda master is a final twist of historical irony, one Russia expert told BBG Watch.

The person who will rejoice the most is President Putin, with whom Masha Gessen had a semi-private meeting shortly before Mr. Korn announced her appointment. He had recently signed a law that re-criminalized slander with fines of up to $150,000. Another Russia expert told BBG Watch that while Gessen was known as one of Putin’s critics and activist for gay rights and same-sex marriage in Russia, her accusation of slander and her somewhat murky account of her meeting with Putin raise serious questions. Former Radio Liberty journalists and others doubt her story and dismiss the RFE/RL management’s claims that the firings were necessary to transition to digital media.

Professor Shlapentokh told the BBG, “The fact that Washington fired almost everybody in Internet section of the radio, professionals with the highest journalistic qualification and the invaluable experience in the analysis of Russian society, is completely incompatible with the claim of shifting focus to the website.”

Books by Vladimir ShlapentokhVladimir Shlapentokh who wrote to the BBG that Russian liberals were in particular hurt by the “amoral nature” of the action of RFE/RL executives, was born, raised, and educated in the Soviet Union. Before emigrating to the United States in 1979, he worked as a Senior Fellow in the Sociological Institute in Moscow, and he conducted the first nationwide public opinion surveys in the USSR. In the Soviet Union he published ten books and many dozens of articles on various social issues, including the methodology of sociological studies.

Since emigrating to the U.S., Dr. Shlapentokh has published 18 books, dozens of professional articles about Soviet and contemporary Russian issues, and dozens of columns in periodicals such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor. In addition, he has organized several national and international conferences.

Since 1982, he has worked as a consultant to the United States government, regularly reporting on social processes, ideology, and public opinion in Russia and other post-Communist countries. He is currently a professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

“Despite my rich experience, a rare event flabbergasted me greatly: news about the dismissal of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty, the closure of many programs, and future cessation of broadcasting on medium waves. My reaction was perfectly conveyed by Viktor Shenderovich, a leading liberal blogger in Russia, who stated that ‘the KGB and FSB, all ideological departments of the Central Committee of CPSU, all detractors of the West in Putin’s Russia, all of them together’ could not do what Washington did to Radio Liberty. Let us put aside the issue of foreign policy. No doubt, whatever were the intentions of the initiators of this deal, in the opinion of many Russian observers it suggests that Washington is trying to integrate with Putin, despite the radical deterioration of American-Russian relations. In the last months Moscow found many dozen ways to demonstrate its hostility to the USA. The humiliating treatment of American ambassador McFaul, who after his arrival to the Russian capital in January was harassed by the media and never received by Putin, as well as the ban on the activity of USAID, are only few examples.

However, more important is the impact the decision about Radio Liberty has on the attitudes of those Russians – about a quarter of the population – who come at the wake of anti Americanism fomented by the Kremlin on an every day basis. For them, Radio Liberty, along with Ekho Moskvy, was the last bastions in the fight for vanishing freedom of speech in the country. This part of the population, the most powerful hope for Russia’s democratization, does not accept the flimsy arguments of the destroyers of radio, claiming the dissemination of the station was about the new ways of work, in particular centering on the website. The fact that Washington fired almost everybody in Internet section of the radio, professionals with the highest journalistic qualification and the invaluable experience in the analysis of Russian society, is completely incompatible with the claim of shifting focus to the website. The mass firing of three dozen veterans of the radio communicated to Russian liberals particularly strong, irrefutable evidence that the leaders of the nefarious Perestroika plan to change the content of work and make it palatable to the sly and sophisticated ideological operators of Kremlin’s administration and offer the dismantling of Radio Liberty as a gift to Putin and a sacrifice for the cause of false Russian-American ‘reset’.

Russian liberals were in particular hurt by the amoral nature of the action, seeing these arguments only as an uncomfortable and weak cover of their capitulation with the Russian regime. Indeed, only recently has the Kremlin passed the law which again introduced the term “foreign agents” in Russia’s everyday life. All people fired by Washington are already labeled ‘foreign agents’, who will have no chance to find the job under existing circumstances. In this time of unrest, it is detrimental to the Russian public to cast out and dismiss these journalists who stood as innovators and protectors of human rights, freedom of speech, free media, and the democratic exchange of ideas.

Now is the time to correct this unwise and immoral action.

Dr. Vladimir Shlapentokh, Professor of Sociology, MSU.
Website: https://www.msu.edu/~shlapent

The director, Lev Gudkov — another renown sociologist — and staff of Russia’s independent social research institute Levada Center also sent a letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors protesting against the firings of journalists at Radio Liberty.

Mikhail Gorbachev said:

“Glasnost is threatened in Russia and other countries. Journalists and press are being increasingly attacked.
 Glasnost helped break the resistance of conservative reactionary top bureaucracy, when its representatives attempted to turn back Russia’s development. Today, when people openly show their will to influence the government’s policy and participate in forming their destiny, glasnost’s importance grows.

Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s management decision to dismiss almost all of the Russian service staff looks especially strange in this context. In times of severe censorship Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL Russian Service) made calls for democratization and glasnost a tenor of its programs. It is hard to get rid of an impression that RFE/RL’s American management is prepared to make an about turn.”

Radio SvobodaFor the history of Radio Liberty (Radio

Сентябрь 10, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 11:01 пп

The uniqueness of Putin’s regime in light of Russian history

        It turns out that Russia is a remarkable experimental ground for the study of various authoritarian regimes. In fact, over its thousand year history, Russian society has been dominated either by an authoritarian state in a mostly centralized society (as happened in monarchist Russia from the 16th century until 1917, and then in Soviet Russia until 1991) or by a combination of authoritarianism and feudalism (as it was from the emergence of the Kiev state until Ivan the Terrible, and from 1993 (when Yeltsin installed his dictatorship) until the present). The third segment of society—the liberal one—only held a leading role for a few months in the aftermath of the February revolution in 1917, and for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991-1993).

There is an arsenal of means that an authoritarian state can use to keep subjects under control, and prevent the destruction of a given authoritarian regime. This includes physical repressions against real or potential enemies, control over the minds of the masses, material rewards for the people in the repressive apparatus (beginning with the political police and the army) and the stimulation of the intellectual elite—material or coercive—to engage them in ideological work. Authoritarian regimes mostly differ from each other, in the intensity of their repressive actions and in the role of single instruments used for coercion of their subjects.

The choice of repressive methods always depends on the leader of the regime. In fact, the head of an authoritarian regime is like a driver who could choose one exit or another on a highway, for good or bad, for himself or for the country—choosing one level of repression or another, choosing the physical extermination of opponents to the regime or “merely” firing them from their jobs or expelling them abroad. His attitude toward repressions depends on various factors. First of all, he and the people who have connected their fate with him have to make up their minds as to which is more dangerous to the survival of the regime and its leader, harsh repressions or a liberal policy? The leader also has to calculate the international and economic situation, as well as the power of the opposition and its potential for seizing power, in deciding about the repressions. The policy of the predecessor will also play an important role; the probability of more liberal policies is higher if the previous leader emphasized repressions and vice versa. Neither should the personality of the leader be overlooked. The personalities of Stalin, Brezhnev and Putin account for a lot of the repressive measures seen during their regimes.  

Of course, the level of repressions is not the only criterion for distinguishing between authoritarian regimes. A comparison of the authoritarian regimes that existed in Russia before the October revolution of 1917 shows that the differences in the social and economic structures of the regimes were no less important, in some cases, than the character of the repressive mechanisms used.  Indeed, the other two segments of society—feudal and liberal—had a great impact on the functioning of society. The regimes of Nikolas the First and Alexander the Second were quite different, not only because the level of the repressions was high in one case and relatively low in the other, but also because the role the liberal sector played was almost nil under Nikolas , while it became quite important by the end of the reign of his son.

The differences between some of the other authoritarian regimes in Russian history can be reduced almost exclusively to the level of coercion used, physical and ideological. Such is the case if we compare the regimes of Catherine the Great on one side, and the regime of Alexander the First, on another. There were no serious disparities in the political, economic and social structures of the two reigns, even if Alexander did make some attempts to liberalize society in the beginning of his rule, all of which were aborted. The level of repressions under his watch declined significantly, however, when compared with the previous regimes. A comparison of the next two regimes—Alexander the First and Nicolas the First—produces the same result:  no disparity in the social, political and economic structures but an enormous disparity in the level of repressions. The real predecessor of the KGB—the notorious Third Section of the Chancellery, headed by the general Alexander Benkendorf, was created by Nikolas. Like the KGB, the new organization installed control over all Russians involved in any sort of public activity, while at the same time it created censure guaranteeing that no text even remotely critical of the monarchy could be printed.    

The number of victims under the Third Section of the Chancellery was staggering for that time. It included about 600 arrested as participants of the Decembrist plot, as well as 40 members of the Petrashevsky revolutionary circle. Aside from the five executed Decembrists, in both cases, all those sentenced by the court were sent to Siberia. The new (liberal) regime of Alexander the Second freed them in 1856. (One hundred years later, Khrushchev’s liberal regime did the same with Stalin’s victims). 

The differences between the various Soviet regimes, like the differences between the regimes of Alexander the First and Nikolas the First, were only in the level of repressions. In fact, the political, social and economic institutions, which were shaped in the first five years after the emergence of the Soviet order, did not change until Perestroika. Physical repressions reached a peak during Stalin’s reign, the harshest of all Soviet regimes. According to the official data of the KGB, roughly 3.8 million people were arrested and sentenced by non-judicial bodies (the notorious troika) to death, internal exile, or the Gulag.  786,000 people from this group were executed from the 1930s to the early 1950s.  These figures, as the KGB data asserted, do not include the victims of dekulakization, starvation and deportation. In this time, not only the behavior but even the minds of all Russians were controlled by the state apparatus, which kept strict control over each printed word, and over the activities of each scholar, teacher, writer, painter, musician or movie and theatre director. 

First and foremost, fear of the state and political police embraced all strata of the population, mostly because the informers were insiders, even in such small units as a college class or in a small provincial theatre. Fear in Stalin’s time was so overwhelming that it could wield enormous influence on the relations not only between colleagues and neighbors but also inside the family—between parents and children, and even between spouses.   

The fears  in Stalin’s time were so strong that even seven decades later, when Russia was supposedly a different country, it continued to linger in the mentality of many Russians, even among the younger generations. This continuity of fear, which can hardly be detected in the post Communist Baltic republics or in Poland, can only be ascribed to the fact that, from Stalin forward, Russians have not even had a single decade where they lived in a society that wasn’t dominated by authoritarian institutions and repressions.  

The Soviet regimes that followed Stalin, up until Perestroika, only varied in the intensity of their physical repressions and their ideological control over the population, particularly over the so-called “creative intelligentsia.” The major institutions of an authoritarian (or, rather, totalitarian) regime remained the same in all of the Soviet regimes after the civil war. The political order was always deeply anti-democratic, with key roles played by the party and political police, as well as with its fake elections, and with the state monopoly on media, education, science and the arts. It is true that each Soviet regime tried to change something in the economic structure of society. Khrushchev, for example, tried to stimulate economic growth with some decentralization of economic decisions. The same can be said of his ideas to move agriculture ahead with such actions as the turning over of virgin land in Kazakhstan or the order to cultivate corn everywhere in the country. He was ousted from his position in 1964, when there were lines for bread in every city and a nation-wide shortage of almost all consumer goods. Although it tried to do it differently from Khrushchev, Brezhnev’s regime made the same attempts to decentralize the management of the economy (the so-called Kosygin’s reforms), or at least to improve it using computers and mathematical methods of planning. Brezhnev’s attempts failed as badly as Khrushchev’s, and none of the Soviet regimes could claim to have created their own economic order.

It is true that confrontations with the West diminished after Stalin’s death, but not radically. Until the collapse of the USSR, the militarization of society was practically the same as it had been in Stalin’s times. The Soviet state continued to participate in the weapons race without any respite. Khrushchev’s and, in particular, Brezhnev’s steps to soften the Soviet animosity toward the West from time to time did not change the atmosphere of the cold war in any essential way. After 1953, all of the subsequent regimes continued to consider the West as the enemy; the cold war determined the foreign policies of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, not to mention Andropov, who elevated international tension to the level that existed in the last years of Stalin’s reign, when the Korean War could have triggered a global conflict between the two superpowers. The USSR continued to protect its dominance in East Europe through brute force (the suppression of the Hungarian insurrection by Khrushchev, and of the Prague spring by Brezhnev), and the attempts to expand control over other countries continued after Stalin on a full scale; the intervention in Afghanistan under Brezhnev was the post-Stalin culmination of Soviet geopolitical efforts. 

However, it was the level of repressions that truly formed the face of each post-Stalin Soviet regime. Khrushchev’s regime did not enter history as that which made the USSR a superpower (as suggested by Sergei Khrushchev in his book, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower) but as the softener of Stalin’s harsh political order. This regime practically declared Stalin a criminal, releasing hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Gulag, and giving a postmortem acquittal to legions of Stalin’s victims; it alleviated censorship; it allowed the emergence of new Soviet literature—all but making Solzhenitsyn, with his harsh critique of the Gulag atrocities, the hero of Soviet literature; empirical sociology and mathematical economics, which had previously been regarded as bourgeois sciences, were given new life under Khrushchev; many foreign authors were translated; and contacts with the West were increased. Fear declined somewhat throughout the country, and people became more open with each other.              

Brezhnev’s regime entered history with signs of being the opposite of Khrushchev’s. On the whole, Brezhnev’s regime was a partial return to Stalin’s times, particularly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was this regime that started re-Stalinization in ideology; began the persecution of dissidents, carrying out trials against some of them; expelled Solzhenitsyn abroad and exiled Sakharov to the province; declared war on the intelligentsia; fired and even arrested some intellectuals who participated in protest actions; and persecuted liberal scholars. It also encouraged Russian chauvinism and increased the level of anti-Semitism. At the same time, Brezhnev’s regime made one very important move in its politics of repressions: it allowed Jewish emigration for one decade, for the sake of a temporal improvement of relations with the USA—an unprecedented act that greatly influenced future developments in Russia.

The differences between the Soviet regimes and post-Soviet regimes (Putin’s, first and foremost) are of a very different nature than the differences among the Soviet regimes. The core of the differences can be seen in the emergence of liberal and feudal segments that were only in an embryonic stage in Soviet times. The interactions of these three segments in post-Soviet times produced a very specific, even unique society with a very particular authoritarian power.

Among the elements of the liberal segment that became embedded in Russian life were several freedoms, like free movement inside and outside the country; the total openness of the country to the external world; freedom of speech in private and, to some degree, in the public sphere; and the freedom, though limited, to assemble. However, the most important element of liberalization was the legalization of big business in society, which had immense consequences for a society with strong feudal tendencies, including a weak state and low observance of the law. The emergence of big business as a crucial actor in Russian society led to the expansion of corruption to a level that would have been unbelievable in any of the Russian regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that also, consequently, led to the concentration of big money in the Kremlin. With the elimination of the financing of various pro-Soviet regimes abroad, and with the drastic reduction in military expenditures, a gigantic amount of money came to be at the personal disposal of the Kremlin’s master. The curtailment of expenditures on public goods—science, education, culture, and health services—only increased the resources at Putin’s disposal. Legislators’ decisive voice in how to use taxpayers’ money has always been the main instrument for controlling executive power in a truly democratic society. It is well known that the fight against absolutist monarchy has often begun with a demand from the elected parliament to control the budget. However, the Duma—the Russian parliament—had, in fact, no real impact on the use of the budget, or the enormous extra budgetary resources controlled by Putin’s regime. Of no less importance was the free access the Kremlin had to the resources of big corporations—state, private and mixed. The corporations whose very existence was at the mercy of the Kremlin (as was the case for many Russian fortunes) were ready to satisfy any of the Kremlin’s demands for money—whether to fulfill the personal needs of the rulers or for their pet projects, like the Olympic games.      

It is obvious that without universal corruption and lawlessness—both of which are products of feudal tendencies—such a concentration of money in the Kremlin would have been impossible in the past. As a matter of fact, all of the previous Russian regimes always fought corruption as well as feudal tendencies, even if they had different results. The two post-Soviet regimes, Yeltsin’s and Putin’s, were the first in Russian history in which the government was not only not fighting corruption at the highest echelons of power but, in fact, encouraged it as the best way to ensure the loyalty of bureaucracy and big business to the regime. None of the previous leaders promoted or tolerated the feudal elements in the country that allowed officials at all levels of bureaucracy—such as those who were included in Magnitsky’s list—to use their offices as feudal fiefs for personal enrichment, with a guarantee of immunity against prosecution by law enforcement agencies.

 None of the regimes before 1991 —and again, the parallels with the early Middle Ages are evident here—intentionally made the governors into real feudal barons like Alexander Tkachev, the governor of Krasnodar region, who could do anything in their power in their provinces; they enriched themselves and the members of their family, and sustained ties with criminal structures. The only demands Putin’s regime made of the governors were for their population to vote in favor of the Kremlin, and to guarantee the absence of mass protests. None of the previous authoritarian leaders could make feudal servants out of their business bosses, as Putin did with Oleg Deripaska, who put his resources at the total disposal of the Kremlin, as well as offering like Mikhail Prokhorov his readiness to play the role in political shows as the Kremlin’s puppet, in exchange for various privileges.

Putin’s regime was so immersed in corruption that it did not even dare to fight it inside of law enforcement agencies. All the Russian regimes in the past considered the integrity of their political police to be a necessary condition for fulfilling its duty as their watchdog. This was not the case for Putin’s Kremlin, which saw the corruption inside the FSB, the heir of the KGB, as well as in the Minister of Internal affairs or the Investigative Committee, or inside other governmental structures, with clear equanimity. During the first two decades of post-Soviet history, not one high official or big business man was sued in court, and none went to trial. For instance, Yurii Luzhkov, former Moscow mayor, was not prosecuted, even though his corruption activity was divulged in several documentary movies in 2012.    

In fact, different from every other regime in Russian history, Putin’s administration used corruption in order to tie not only the holders of various state offices to the regime, but also millions of ordinary people, like doctors and teachers, traffic officers and the inspectors of fire departments and sanitation units, who were bribed by citizens both to implement their legal rights and to skirt them.

It was the possibility of personally operating with immense resources, and mostly for their own benefit, that greatly changed the behavior of post-Soviet leaders in comparison with their predecessors. It looks as if the gigantic military machine controlled by Soviet leaders, and the ability—at least in post-Stalin times—to push the button for starting nuclear war did not make them as self-conceited and self-important as big money, with its control of resources (gas and oil), did to Putin. All Soviet leaders led an ascetic life by the standards in Putin’s times, and could not transfer any assets to their offspring. Almost none of the heads of the Russian state in the 19th-20th centuries, nor their ruling elites, were as absorbed with personal enrichment as Yeltsin and Putin. None of the previous leaders, even taking Nikita Khrushchev, who was known for his emotional outbursts, into account, and definitely not the highly educated Russian monarchs, used such vulgar language as Putin. Stalin—who sent a lot of people to their deaths with the wink of an eye—never allowed himself to behave like a redneck in public, as Putin does.  None of the Russian leaders would have dared to perform circus stunts, as Putin does, to show the public what a macho man he is. It is simply not possible to imagine that one of the Russian (or foreign) leaders in history would have done the same (only Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze River at Wuhan in 1966 comes to mind). Putin’s public stunts include piloting a fighter jet; swimming in a Siberian river; scuba diving in the strait connecting the Black and Azov seas; shooting a polar bear to tranquilize him; shooting a whale with a crossbow; swimming with dolphins; participating in a car race; riding bare-chested on a horse through the Siberian wilderness; and co-piloting forest fire planes. Putin’s demonstration of machismo in September 2012 involved his piloting a hang-glider to lead cranes on a migratory route. Only an extraordinary level of self-confidence allowed him to disregard the reaction of the public—domestic and international—that openly mocked the extravaganzas put on by the Russian leader.

In fact, big money in the Kremlin deeply influenced not only Putin’s personality but his mechanisms of repression. The leaders in Putin’s regime protected themselves against enemies through the use of big money. Of course, Putin’s regime did not neglect the traditional means of repression either. A few murders of journalists and politicians, as well as jail terms for a few recalcitrant opposition figures ascribed to the regime by the public, were sufficient to spread enough fear among the critics of the Kremlin and local governors to prevent the most “brazen”  among them from taking action. What is more, with the prominent feudal elements in society, the persecution of opponents to the regime ceased to be highly centralized, as it had been in Soviet times, and could be performed by various bodies, at the national and local levels, on their own initiative, even up to the thugs of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s feudal barons who was able to kill his enemies in the capital and abroad, appearing in Moscow.

Still, big money allowed Putin’s regime to considerably diminish the overall number of repressions, in comparison with the past. With big money, Putin reduced the size of the opposition to his regime, particularly among state employees and retired people, forcing them to refrain from protest actions, and to vote for him and his party. Instead of arresting or expelling intellectuals to Siberia or abroad, Putin enrolled many of them in the defense of his rule in the media, by awarding fabulous honoraria, and by financially supporting their theatres and orchestras. He was able to suggest that intellectuals become his special emissaries during the presidential election. Putin neutralized many real or potential activists of the opposition by luring them into his dark business with a considerable income and the permanent threat of investigation by law enforcement agencies; those who weren’t completely subdued were at least restrained from taking action that was too aggressive against the government. With the same money, Putin guaranteed the loyalty of the special riot police and the highest officers in the army, making them relatively wealthy people, and not preventing them from having assets abroad.

None of the previous leaders were so apathetic toward the long-term future of Russia. None of them were so unconcerned about the state of science and education in their country. What is more, none of them were so lukewarm about the military preparedness of the army, focusing their attention solely on the repressive apparatus.

   None of the authoritarian leaders of pre-revolutionary Russia, nor, definitely, those in the Soviet past, would have subjugated the foreign policy of the country to the financial interests of corporations, because they were the source of wealth for leaders and their circles. None of them were ready to sacrifice relations with their natural allies, as Putin was, if these relations did not satisfy the financial expectations of the ruling elite. Unlike Putin, none of them indulged their whims or personal feelings toward the leaders of foreign countries when making important decisions on foreign affairs. None of them—prerevolutionary or Soviet leaders—insulted the heads of foreign countries unless they were at war with them. At the same time, none of the past leaders were as low in esteem or as weak in the international scene. None of the leaders were so degraded and mocked by domestic and international public opinion. None of them were as concerned about the legitimacy of their positions as the head of state as Putin, even though he was able to formally use the state apparatus to be elected in a factually phony, rigged election because he never permitted honest competition with his political rivals. At the same time, none of the Soviet leaders so cynically or openly articulated their determination to stay in power for an indefinite period of time, as Putin did, even if they hoped to do so.

Putin differed radically from the Soviet leaders in ideological matters. He did not, in fact, pay much attention to ideology, unlike all of the previous General Secretaries. The Soviet leaders operated with a relatively cohesive ideology. Lenin’s socialism and Russian nationalism combined well in the common glorification of the state and the dictatorship of the party. The big state apparatus was involved in the ideological indoctrination of the masses. At the same time, though, Putin was satisfied with his very eclectic ideology, which had to simultaneously justify the state, democratic procedures, and the dominant feudal elements in society, and which has the minimal impact on the mind of the Russians.

It is remarkable that none of the Soviet leaders was so indifferent to social equality in society, or so tolerant of the conspicuous consumption of the ruling elite. None of them (including, to some degree, the Russian tsars) tolerated the deep—in fact, treacherous and anti-national in nature—ties of this elite group with the West, which they considered to be the best place to keep their assets, educate and provide a permanent residence for their children, and, ultimately, to be a refuge for themselves, in case of turmoil.

The comparison of Putin’s regime with the Soviet, as well as the prerevolutionary, authoritarian regimes help us to better understand the nature of Russia in the first decade of the 21st century. However, in no way does the author claim to predict when Putin’s regime will collapse—not in the foreseeable future, or in one decade, or in three decades, or at any moment—as many pundits in Russia and outside have tried to do in 2010-2013.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Second (February) Russian Revolution, a Moscow journalist from the popular newspaper Argumenty i Fakty talked to a 96-year-old Russian noble, Baron Eduard Falzfei, who clearly remembered how the 300-year-old Romanov Empire dissipated before his eyes in a few days. As he recounted, even one week before the February Revolution, none of the Russian nobles in his family or around him had predicted such a catastrophic change in their lives. Of course, many mutually exclusive ideas about how to transform politics in Russia were circulating in Petrograd in 1916 (the most radical among them was the replacement of the tsar). Less than three weeks before the resignation of the emperor, during a meeting with Nikolas the Second, Mikhail Rodzianko, a liberal monarchist, demanded radical changes in the government and tried to scare the emperor with the prospect of revolution. The tsar, however, did not take this threat seriously. He treated it as merely one of the many gloomy prophesies that could be found in any society and in any time. Vasilii Shulgin, another monarchist (he was among those who attended the ceremony of Nikolas’s abdication), in his famous memoir Years, recounted that two days before the start of the revolution, the tsar still hated the State Duma and signed an edict that stopped its activity for an uncertain period of time. The committed enemies of the monarchy were no shrewder on this topic than the imperial court. In exile in Zurich, Vladimir Lenin bitterly lamented in 1916 that his generation would never see a revolution in Russia, the dream of the liberal intelligentsia.

However, on February 23rd, a demonstration by women in Petrograd, who demanded bread, was strong enough to trigger the events that brought about the abdication of Nikolas the Second in ten days. It meant the collapse of the Russian monarchy, along with its repressive apparatus, its loyal Orthodox Church, and the cult of the tsar. The velocity with which the Russian empire vanished amazed the Russians themselves as well as the rest of the world.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, many analysts supported Alexander Zinoviev’s vision of the Soviet Union, as described in his famous book The Yawning Heights (1973), as being a perfect society for ordinary people who were concerned only about stability and the satisfaction of their basic needs, and not freedom. A legion of postmortem prophets has advanced, with admirable conviction, dozens of causes of the empire’s instant death. None of them, however, were able to predict the demise of the USSR when it was alive. The memoirs of the many Soviet politicians, including people close to Gorbachev, then the leader of the USSR, showed that the collapse of the Soviet system in August 1991 was totally unexpected. Even Gorbachev himself ultimately recognized that he did not expect the collapse of the USSR, either in August or later. This was evident when Gorbachev made his first statement while at the airport, after returning from seclusion in Foros, in August 1991. It was clear that the Soviet president did not understand that he was coming back to a new country. He later acknowledged this fact himself. Alexander Bessmertny, the last Soviet foreign minister, insisted that “Gorbachev did not feel that the USSR was about to collapse.” He said that “I don’t think there was any Soviet Intelligence documents which mentioned this future collapse,” and that “I, like most of the Politburo, understood that the USSR was changing, but it never occurred to us that it could cease to exist.”

Western observers who were living in Moscow at the time were as surprised as the Soviet people. Jack Mattlock, who served as the American ambassador in Moscow for four years before the August events, and who had perfect knowledge of Russian language and history, wrote in 1995, “Other empires may have shattered under the pressure of war or revolution, but the Soviet Union expired quietly…Within minutes, while most Americans were opening presents or preparing Christmas dinner, Russia replaced the Soviet Union as a nuclear power…The enormity of what had happened soon sank in. I had expected the outcome, but I also realized that, with all my acquaintance with the society and its politicians and my own participation in some of these events, I could not explain with confidence just how it had happened…How could such a state simply have destroyed itself?”

Western intelligence services and politicians were no more successful than ambassador Matlock in their predictions of the Soviet future. David Arbel and Ran Edelist named several dozens politicians, intelligence officers and journalists in Washington who used the word “surprise” to characterize their reactions to the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those who described themselves as surprised were Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of State Lawrence Eagelburger and State Department official Robert McFarlane. Dozens of other journalists, intelligence officers and politicians in the United States and Europe also confessed their sense of surprise.

The author of this text was in Moscow in May 1991, and witnessed the drastic deterioration of the standard of living and the universal discontent. However, among the people with whom he talked (from outstanding social scientists to taxi drivers), many predicted (the author included) a strong counteroffensive by the Communists, not the fall of the USSR. Eduard Shevardnadze, then a member of the Politburo and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, predicted this event in December 1990 at a meeting of the Fourth Congress of People’s Deputies. Indeed, in August 1991, the Soviet ruling elite undertook a putsch, which, to everybody’s surprise (and to the relief of liberals), was dismantled in three days. The self-proclaimed junta did not dare order the army to shoot into the crowd and quickly capitulated. Neither the Communists nor the KGB resisted Yeltsin’s decision to bury the Soviet Union. There was not even one member of a party committee at any level (from the regional to the factory level) who publicly defended the regime, which served, supposedly, as the basis of their status and well being. For the Russian people, the fall of the regime was a total surprise—a moment of déjà vu for those who remembered February 1917.

        The comparison of Putin’s regime with the Soviet regimes, if not a very effective instrument, is still helpful for evaluating its stability and its vulnerability with respect to domestic and international challenges. Putin’s regime had neither an effective party and state apparatus, nor a powerful KGB and strong ideology. But never in Russian history had such a  big number of the Russians lived as well as under Putin. Never in history had the opposition lacked charismatic leaders as much as in Putin’s Russia. The most vulnerable spot in the stability of Putin’s regime were the prices of oil and gas. Their drastic decline would have had a tremendous impact on political life in Russia. However, in this case, the well-paid FSB, police and army may have had a good chance of coping with the mass protests of a pauperized population. Other unpredictable shocks, like big technological disasters, might also change a lot in domestic lives.

In any case, Putin’s regime, with Putin or without him, has a good chance of persisting for the next decade or two.


Август 9, 2012

Vladimir Shlapentokh, Joshua Woods,Feudal America Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society,Review

Filed under: Uncategorized — shlapentokh @ 6:23 пп
  1. 1.       Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews July 2012 vol. 41 no. 4 540-541

Feudal America Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society.htm


Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society

Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society, by Vladimir Shlapentokh, Joshua Woods . University Park, PA: PennState Press, 2011. 170 pp. $ 54.95 cloth. ISBN: 9780271037813.

In Feudal America, Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods analyze elements within contemporary American society that are similar to feudalism in medieval Europe, roughly from 800 AD to 1300 AD. From the beginning, the authors acknowledge that U. S. society is not completely feudal, but neither was feudal Europe. They state that no society is purely one type of political system and that all societies have elements of the liberal, authoritarian, and feudal.

The feudal system that the authors focus on is the political model based on Coulanges, Vinogradoff, Ganshof, and Bloch’s theories of feudalism. In this model of feudal society, politics—not economics—determine socioeconomic phenomena. In the Middle Ages, kings gave away pieces of their kingdom to be governed by their nobles. The governance of a holding was given to the nobles because kings did not have the resources to closely govern every aspect of their kingdoms. Additionally, since land equaled power and money, these landholdings were a way for kings to reward and control their subjects. In return, nobles were obliged to govern their landholdings and provide military service to their king. Military service usually meant defending the kingdom’s lands or expanding the kingdom. Because the central authority of the king was weak, nobles were in essence the ultimate power of the lands they held for the king. A noble would become so powerful that his governance of a certain piece of land became hereditary and families began to see it as their land, not the king’s held in governance. The king’s central authority was a weak check in order to adjudicate squabbles between nobles, and kept a noble from becoming so powerful that he might seize the throne and rule over the other nobles. As a whole, it was in the nobles’ best interest to have a weak central authority.

For each chapter, Shlapentokh and Woods describe a part of feudal society from the Middle Ages and then apply those concepts to contemporary society. Most of the elements of modern society are held in comparison to corporate America. Here, the weak central authority is the U.S. government, and the lords are corporations. The U. S. government depends upon corporations yet corporations also try to monopolize power away from the government and squabble among themselves. The authors also argue that corporations only care about their own interests and not the good of society, the main purpose of central authority. Like nobles who received tax money, corporations receive tax breaks. Nepotism is rampant in corporations. The personal relation to the corporation and its people may be more important than the relationship or legalities of the government. Private security within the United States is common as evidenced by private security firms, security guards, bouncers, bodyguards, bounty hunters, gated communities, and private prisons. Corporations maintain reciprocal relationships with the U. S. government through contracts and personal ties similar to kings and their nobles during the medieval period.

Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society is a good book for the general reader who has an interest in the Middle Ages and elements of the Middle Ages in contemporary corporate America.

              © American Sociological Association 2012


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