Staunton, May 21 – Before our eyes and in a remarkably short time, Aleksandr Tsipko says, the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed the hitherto widely held belief among Russians that the fate of their country and the fate of Vladimir Putin were ineluctably intertwined and even one and the same thing.
The senior Moscow commentator says that this should not really come as a surprise because it reflects the fact that the impact of a faceless enemy is always very different than that of one with a human visage. The latter typically unites people with their leader, but the former highlights their differences (ng.ru/ideas/2020-05-20/7_7865_sacralization.html).
Russians now look at Putin with different eyes given that they face the possibility of death from a faceless enemy he can’t stop. And as a result, Tsipko argues, “the future of Russia will depend in large measure on how the zeroing out of the former sacred relationship to Putin generated by the pandemic will end.”
Further, he says, it is now clear that “the possibility of dismantling Putinist authoritarianism, about which the liberal opposition speaks now entirely depends on the dismantling of the traditional Russian sacralization of power.” That didn’t happen in 1991 and so 1993 occurred. But it has happened since March 10 when Putin’s lifetime in power was backed.
“In order to understand the fate of the sacred relationship of ‘the deep Russian people’ to Putin” despite their fatigue with him, “one must take into consideration the specific nature of the delight [the deep Russian people] had in the power of Putin.” They were delighted by his coldness and discipline and also by his plans to achieve what for others seemed impossible.
“The sacred character of Putin did not have anything in common with the sacredness of the tsars as God’s representative on earth,” Tsipko says. Putin in fact “has put himself above God” by declaring that he will decide who goes to heaven and who to hell in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.
According to Tsipko, “it is possible that there was no strategy behind all this but simply the instinct of the self-preservation of supreme power.” Despite all the harm he inflicted on Russia with his Crimean adventure, Putin retained or even gained the support of the population because of the faith Russians had that he was special and alone had the ability to do such things.
That of course, “led to the de-intellectualization of Russia today and a lowering of the quality of thought not only among government propagandists on television but in society as a whole.” Russians seemed to have become even more lacking in thought than was the case in Soviet times.
Further, “the more mysticism and messianism in the current government treatment of Soviet history, the more was wiped out of consciousness realism, the intrinsic value of human life, and the consciousness of the real causes of our Russian catastrophes,” the Moscow scholar and commentator says.
“As a result, the sacralization of even the undoubted achievements of Soviet history has led to the dehumanization of the consciousness of the population, to the loss of the initial Christian foundations of Russian thought, to a loss of good sense of the ability to objectively assess the situation in one’s own country and its real prospects.”
That blocked any serious analysis of the mistakes of the current leadership and further primitivized the thinking of “’the deep Russian people.’” But it also had the same impact on the thinking of the powers as well. They too couldn’t assess reality but were driven by passions alone.
Had they not been, they would have seen that Russia was far better off before the Crimean Anschluss than it was after that date, even if Russians celebrated Putin for achieving what almost everyone thought impossible. And more mistakes have followed, including most disastrously the failure to agree with OPEC on oil prices.
“Our tragedy,” Tsipko says, “is that the rebirth of Russian autocracy in the 21st century has led to the rebirth of the traditional spatial-power thinking of the long passed 19th century” and to the outcome Ivan Illin warned against: a national pride resting on a mania for greatness alone.
“The present pandemic, with its threat to undermine the foundations of contemporary civilization, kills everything on which the sacred nature of the power of Putin rests. Under current conditions, when the entire country to an equal degree is suffering from the pandemic, all our propaganda pushing hatred of the contemporary West becomes anti-natural and anti-human.”
According to Tsipko, “the sacred standing of Putin was close to that of the leaders of Bolshevism, Lenin and Stalin, at the basis of which stood the enthusiasm of ‘the deep Russian people’ before leaders of a state which were trying to do the unthinkable and stand above everyone.”
Putin is trying to do something similar and until the pandemic it had similar effects: it too was based on messianism and the notion of the special Russian civilization the Kremlin leader now talks about. “The Bolsheviks justified their total power by communism messianism; Putin justifies his by Russian messianism and the ideals of ‘the Russian world.’”
But that effort has now come crashing down because the pandemic and the horrors and fears it has given rise to have been “useful” in that they have revived “the instinct of self-preservation and forced individuals to look at the real threats of life” rather than the imaginary ones Putin has postulated.
As soon as that sense of self-preservation returns, Tsipko says, “the psychological basis for any mysticism disappears – including that of a sacred relationship to the powers that be. For this reason,” he continues, “the pandemic inevitably has undermined the psychological foundations of the sacred attitude toward Putin’s power.”
“The tragedy of Putin,” Tsipko suggests, “both as a personality and a leader of Russia consists in the following: in the first decade of his power, his popularity rose because of his undoubted achievements” but in the last six years, since Sochi and Crimea, “he began to give priority to the impossible” for purposes of show and that did nothing for Russia.
“From this moment, Putin in the same of temporary external success began to sacrifice the wellbeing of the population.” What the pandemic has done is to force Putin and all the leaders around him “to focus attention on Russian poverty and see that 70 percent of the population of Russia has no savings and lives from paycheck to paycheck.”
And at the same time, the pandemic has led Russians to recognize at last that “attitudes to combine Russia’s fate with a willingness to die in the name of the rebirth of Russian great power have become unnatural,” Tsipko says. As a result, Putin’s triumphalist propaganda no longer works: he has fallen from the heights back to earth.
“The pandemic has revealed that in fact, not everything Putin had planned is possible, that the unpredictability of life is in a position to destroy all the plans of the power” and that many of the things the regime has set such store in are meaningless when people are confronted by suffering and death.
Ignoring that reality is “a red line” no leader can afford to cross, Tsipko says. If he does, he will not remain a human being; and in times of crisis like the pandemic, he cannot hope to remain a god either.