Staunton, May 22 – It is a commonplace that Vladimir Putin is reviving many features of the Soviet and even tsarist past; but it is less widely recognized that many are discussing these new-old things as if they were almost a carbon copy of the originals. In fact, they are not; and in three key cases, Putin’s innovations are different and much worse.
The first is the promotion of social strata or as they were and are called in Russian sosloviya, groups of people defined not by their relationship to the economy as classes are but by their relationship to the state. The return of such strata as a defining feature of Putin’s Russia has been highlighted by the increasing amount of nepotism among the Kremlin leader’s cronies.
The parallels with the post-Petrine Russian imperial state are obvious because in that state all subjects were defined by their relationship to the tsar. There are many elements of that in Putin’s Russia, but there is at least one major difference besides the absence up to now of a formalization of these divisions.
And that is this: within the sosloviya of tsarist Russia, classes did emerge and elites, based on education, arose as well, sometimes challenging those state-imposed divisions. But in Putin’s Russia, the wealthiest are entirely dependent on the state and the state has moved against education and science in ways that limit the emergence of a counter-elite.
Consequently, the Putin arrangements restore the worst features of the pre-1917 arrangements while largely precluding some of the circumstances that reduced these consequences and ultimately led to revolution. On this, see Dmitry Svetlov’s “Elites We Don’t Have, But We Do have Strata” at svpressa.ru/politic/article/200761/).
The second case in which Putin’s copy is worse than the original concerns his use of people whom he calls and who call themselves “Cossacks” even though such people are radically different and far more dangerous to Russia than were their namesakes.
One Moscow analyst who has pointed to this difference and its dangers is Aleksey Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies. He says that those who draw parallels between pre-1917 Cossacks and “Cossacks” because the state has used both against the opposition are missing key points (polit.ru/article/2018/05/22/kazaki2/).
“There is a principled difference” between the two, Makarkin says. Before 1917, “the Cossacks were in military service and thus subject to military discipline. At present, we see that the Cossack forces which [the Kremlin calls up] are organizations which consist of ordinary citizens dressed up in corresponding uniforms.”
Moreover, the Cossacks before 1917 followed orders, good, bad or indifferent, regardless of what their own political views may have been. But “the Cossacks” of the Putin era are profoundly “ideologized” people who have their own agendas and are quite prepared to exceed their authority in the pursuit of them including the use of force and violence.
Many of the “Cossacks” of today are extremely “archaic” in their views. They find the present-day city offensive, believe young people are too free and easy, and look to the Sovietpast for their “moral” orientation, either because they had experience with it or their parents or other relatives did.
That is bad enough, but what is worse is that the Russian powers that be have taken them under their wing, used them as adjuncts to the state’s police power, and refused to punish them for their excesses lest these “Cossacks” desert the state at some future hour of its need. That is not how the tsars acted, but it is how Putin and his regime are, Makarkin says.
And the third case in which Putin has promoted something with a similar name from the past but with a largely different and more dangerous content concerns his acceptance of many of the outrageous political and geopolitical ideas of Aleksandr Dugin who for more than 30 years has positioned himself as “a neo-Eurasian.”
In Kyiv’s Novoye vremya, German political analyst Andreas Umland notes that “the two most important directions of anti-Western though in present-day Russia are classical Eurasianism which arose in the 1920s and 1930s and post-Soviet and so-called ‘neo-Eurasianism’” (nv.ua/opinion/umland/novaja-rossija-chem-otlichaetsja-neoevrazijstvo-duhina-2471164.html).
“In spite of its name,” he argues, “’neo-Eurasianism is not a continuation or addition” to its namesake. Instead, it represents a radical and dangerous redefinition of the basic categories of the Eurasianists. “Classical Eurasianism was an isolationist ideology,” which held that Russia, being so different from the rest of the world, must withdraw from it.
Dugin’s “neo-Eurasianism” does share with Eurasianism an anti-Western posture, Umland writes; but unlike its predecessor, the new edition of this trend is aggressive toward Russia’s neighbors and the world and calls for military and political expansion against and suppression of other peoples in the region and more generally
In all three cases, Putin’s innovations need to be seen for what they are: not the simple revival of past arrangements and ideas that different people feel differently about but rather radically new, different and dangerous developments that he seeks to keep under the radar screen of his own society and world.