Staunton, March 28 – More than the tragedy of the Kemerovo fire, the response of the authorities at all levels to it has brought Russians to the breaking point, Vladimir Pastukhov says, and that in turn means that the relationship between the powers that be and the population will never be quite the same again.
Almost every Russian has experienced that sense of disconnect with and anger at those who rule the nation at some point or other, the London-based Russian historian says. For himself, it came at the time of the Chernobyl accident in April 1986 when he was a university student in Kyiv (mbk.media/sences/chelovek-iz-kemerovo-u-sten/).
It was not the terrible Saturday when the fourth bloc of the Chernobyl atomic power plant blew up, Pastukhov says. Rather, it was the following Monday when he saw in the streets members of the communist nomenklatura going about in gas masks, things that the Soviet rulers were not giving to the people as a whole.
“On that day,” the historian says, “I buried the USSR together with ‘perestroika.’”
Something similar is happening among Russians today. “The authorities of course aren’t responsible for every explosion, fire or accident, and it is senseless to seek a direct link between the tragedy and Putin.” Such tragedies happen everywhere, in dictatorships and democracies, in rich countries and in poor.
And “all these tragedies in human terms are similar to one another,” Pastukhov says, “but each set of powers that be responds against the backdrop of tragedies in its own way. The Russian authorities traditionally have conducted themselves in such circumstance in the worst possible way and thereby “transform tragedy into a PR-farce.”
“The most important political document of this tragic week,” he continues, has been “the stenogram of the conference of ‘the siloviki’ with Putin” It reflects not only the essence of what has occurred in Kemerovo but the essence of the Putin regime and the entire Putin era in Russian history – when the former turned to Putin as “’Comrade President.’”
That one remark showed that at that table were people who are “stuck in the past century” with all its failings.
“The powers that be lose points not from the tragedies themselves because those happen and will unfortunately happen again but from their response to them. They suddenly in a concentrated form shows in a specific case all that has long been their moral-political content, their lack of talent, deceitfulness, heartlessness, greed and helplessness.”
They did not see how the people around them were responding to the tragedy, but those people saw and for many it was the first time and thus a defining moment the powers that be “with different eyes” than they had ever looked through before. For them as for himself at the time of Chernobyl, it marked the final break with rulers like that.
Again, the authorities don’t bear specific responsibility for this disaster, but they do bear indirect responsibility because by their attitudes and actions they have created a situation in which “such tragedies have become the norm of Russian life.” The powers have set a standard of behavior which “millions of subjects” have copied to ill effect.
Putin’s regime has tried to function with two different legal orders, one for the elite and one for the population. But “a legal order either is and is common for all or it isn’t also for all. And in this is the chief internal contradiction of that social model which the Kremlin over the course of almost 20 years has attempted to impose on Russian society.”
The Kremlin leader’s conception of statehood isn’t new. It is the old and discredited form of rule in which those near the top can do whatever they like regardless of laws and rules while those down below are expected to obey those laws and rules to the letter and without question, Pastukhov continues.
But this system doesn’t work. “The higher powers that be corrupt the lower and together with it the whole people” because “it is impossible to combine favoritism and totalitarianism not to speak of democracy,” the historian says. “In Russia each bull thinks he is permitted to do everything that Jupiter is allowed” and acts accordingly.
“The power vertical is one of the greatest Russian utopias,” Pastukhov says. “Already Gogol noted that in Russia first they put one official in charge of controlling another and then they have to find a third who will control the actions of the first two. That in fact is the essence of the power vertical.”
According to the Russian historian, “Putin has created a system through which no administrative signal passes because at each following step, it gives rise to its own ‘untouchables’ for whom now law has been written let alone rules for ensuring the security of buildings.”
“The tragedy in Kemerovo is the apotheosis of legal nihilism imposed from above. In a country where the Constitution is not observed, rules from the ministry of emergency services aren’t going to be observed either. The legal order rots from the head; but judging from the stenogram of the meeting with Putin, it will be cleansed from the other end.”
Ever more Russians can see this, and ever more of them are breaking with the Putin system just as Pastukhov did with the Soviet one at the time of Chernobyl.