Staunton, March 24 – The Putin regime seeks to “freeze Russian society” in its current state in order to preserve the power of the regime, but even while adopting that line, the Kremlin has in fact been promoting revolutionary change and hence bringing its own replacement ever closer, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
Writing in Novaya gazeta, the University College of London Russian historian points out that “Russian society entered the Putin era as one thing and will come out of it completely different,” not as a result of hostile forces but “as a result of the objective laws of history” that Russia can’t easily violate (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/03/22/71873-doktrina-sechina).
The “neo-totalitarian system of present-day Russia” strikes many as something inspiring or terrifying, he continues; but in fact, it is “internally unstable, a ‘political isotope’ with a quite short in historical terms half-life” consisting of “two components: state capitalism and a police state.”
These two elements, of course, will recombine at some point because “the political cycle in Russia consists of three main phases: a rapid rise upward, a sharp fall, and a long drifting period in seeking” new goals. Students of Russian history focus primarily on the first two of these three stages; but the third plays a key role and deserves more attention, especially now.
Given Russia’s tradition of despotism, a police state in fact represents progress, a kind of “’orbital station’” from which there can be “future flights into a distant ‘liberal cosmos’” where the country has never been before. Twice in the 20th century, Russia tried to jump over this step, only to fall back into totalitarianism under Stalin and neo-totalitarianism under Putin.
According to Pastukhov, “Soviet Russia needed a few more than 30 years, if one counts from 1953, to transform itself from an ‘extraordinary’ state into a more or less ‘regular’ one.” But then perestroika intervened with its attempt to jump further forward than Russia had the capacity to go. A decade from now, he says, Russia will pass 30 years from perestroika.
What is occurring now, he says, is “a phased transition’ within the post-communist cycle, from ‘counter-revolution’ to ‘regularity,’” a development conditioned “by the evolution of oligarchic capitalism which arose from the barbaric privatization of the 1990s and completely degenerated in the course of the no less barbaric nationalization of the 2000s.”
For a quarter of a century of post-communist Russian history, Pastukhov says, the country has developed within “a narrow corridor of possibilities set by ‘black privatization’ and ‘gray nationalization.’” But the negative consequences of the former are as nothing compared to the negative consequences of the latter.
No one planned for oligarchic capitalism: it simply arose as a result of the way in which privatization was carried out and “with the complete absence” of even an attempt to create a civil society that could contain it. Not only did that lead to extreme gaps between the richest one percent and the impoverishment of the others, but it was completely ineffective economically.
And it had another consequence, Pastukhov says, that the country still is coping with: the fusion of the former Soviet nomenklatura which was the chief beneficiary of the wild privatization with the criminal world. That led to the crises of 1996 and 1998 and almost to a revolutionary situation in the latter year.
“Theoretically,” the historian continues, Russia has two ways out: the elimination of oligarch capitalism altogether and the optimization of it. The first, however, was precluded by the fact that the oligarch had achieved complete control of the country. When Putin came to power, he could only pursue optimization then not elimination.
What he proceeded to do was to transform the oligarchic system into a “state-oligarchic one in which the bureaucracy (the nomenklatura) became an equal participant of oligarchic rule. The influence of the old post-communist ‘boyars’ weakened; that of the new post-communist ‘nobility’ rose.”
Putin’s reorganization “was conducted in the interests of the oligarchy as a class but harmed the selfish interests of particular oligarchs. Some of them really suffered,” Pastukhov says, “but the oligarchy as a whole only won as a result of these transformations.” And taking advantage of oil money, Putin also boosted the standard of living of the population.
The popular memory of that remains “up to the present the main political capital and most reliable support of the political security of the regime. Everything, however, has its price;” and this course of events did as well.
Putin began like many “Russian ‘autocrats’” as a reformer, but he quickly shifted to what is now known as the Sechin Doctrine in which the supremacy of the state takes precedence over everything else. That became clear after the “gray” nationalization following the economic crisis of 2008-2009.
Putin was able to achieve his ends through the use of state entities of various kinds, “but having resolved one problem, the powers gave birth to another still more serious one.” That is, they promoted the rise of “’favoritism’” in which closeness to the throne was the foundation of all power and wealth and in which corruption became all-embracing.
“The trigger for a new revolutionary situation became the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011-2012, but its real causes were in no way connected with the elections.” The protests in Russia at that time appeared similar to the Maidan in Ukraine in 2013-2014, “a sharp reaction of society to the corrupt-criminal degeneration of the powers that be.”
“However, the results of these manifestations turned out to be completely different: if in Ukraine took place ‘a revolution from below,’ in Russia what occurred was ‘a counter-revolution from above.” And the latter has proved despite the assessments of many far more dramatic in its consequences than the former.
What happened in Russia in 2014-2015 was not conceived as a counter-revolution. That is because “a counter-revolution is also a revolution.” And that is something the regime didn’t want to happen. It sought to promote “the preservation of the regime by changing its nature” in ways few noticed.
This counter-revolution “achieved its final goals in two stages: in the first, it carried out the mobilization of society in order to put down a revolution and in the second without much noise it realized a significant part of the tasks of the revolution which did not occur,” the Russian historian says.
“The main news of ‘the Russian spring’ was not the return of Crimea.” Instead, it was “the change in relations between the powers and the elites.” Before that time, the powers in the Kremlin and the nomenklatura oligarchy were partners; after it, the latter were reduced to servants of the former.
That occurred, Pastukhov says, because “state oligarchic capitalism degenerated into a military-oligarchic form,” one in which no one is safe regardless of his personal ties and in which “the machine of terror” just like in 1937 “has begun to work on automatic pilot” rather than requiring constant guidance.
“In this system,” he continues, “there are no lords; instead all are slaves, all are equal in their lack of rights but not all yet recognize this.” Indeed, “if revolutions devour their children, then counter-revolutions devour their beneficiaries.” But military-oligarchic capitalist has no beneficiaries besides the system itself.
Now, Pastukhov suggests, the agenda calls for “simply state capitalism in which both the oligarch and the favorites will be just like everyone else, deprived of political and even economic rights but which the power permits at least for now to be rich.”
“The political superstructure over state capitalism is a police state, regular, universal but not free. This state is hostile to the oligarchs and favorites just like any other ‘unregulated’ forces.’” Given that, “the last phase of the development of state-oligarchic capitalism promises to be very stormy.”
But out of this conflict is likely to arise a police state in the usual sense, something much better than a despotism because it contains within itself “some not bad chances for the further evolution into something more free with the help of the next Russian ‘perestroika,’ a revolution from above.”
This process won’t be “very romantic or very quick” but it is promising at least compared to Russia’s past over the last century. And it is entirely possible that “a third ‘perestroika’” will prove to be much more successful than the earlier two. Of course, no one knows when this will happen, but a good guess would be in 2025, 40 years after the first was put in place.