Staunton, March 11 – The hatreds Russians feel toward others past and present domestic and foreign are an important reason why Vladimir Putin has been able to maintain himself in power even at a time when polls show that an increasing number of the citizens of his country do not actively support him, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an article on Slon.ru last week, Anton Shirikov argues that the explosion of interest among Russians in Cesar Chavez, the Venezuelan leader who has just died, is “a symptom” of a broader “illness” -- a growing nostalgia of a particular kind now found among many Russians for “heroic leaders” (slon.ru/russia/stalinizma_ne_nado_i_antistalinizma_tozhe-917429.xhtml).
But that longing is not what it may appear at first glance because “the images of such leaders occupy in Russian public consciousness a specific role: The assessment of the personality [of them for Russians] up to now is not a subject of historical argument but a means of self-definition, of saying who you are and with whom you are and what you love and what you hate.”
Thus, these assessments are not so much about the past as about the present and future and reflect even “deeper” splits within Russian society. Shirikov cites a 2011 article by Natalya Zubarevich (vedomosti.ru/opinion/news/1467059/chetyre_rossii) on four entirely different “Russias” and a recent Levada Center poll highlighting those divides (slon.ru/fast/russia/levada-rossiyane-i-narody-zakavkazya-schitayut-stalina-samym-vydayushchimsya-chelovekom-vsekh-vremen-916939.xhtml).
That poll, Shirikov says, suggests that “these ‘Russias’ are divided not so much by social-economic differences and disagreements as by attitude toward Stalin and Stalinism” and “not to real Stalinist policy but to an idealized and ideologized figure of an individual who we hear killed a bunch of people but built an industrial power and won the war.”
It is “indicative” of this distinction, the Slon.ru commentator says, that “while 49 percent of those surveyed assess on the whole the role of Stalin in our history as positive, only five percent definitely would like to live in a country which Stalin administered.”
Although Putin appears to have given up on the idea of being “’president of all Russians,’” he recognizes both that he isn’t in a position to present himself “in the same rank with the great leaders” of the past and even more that he benefits by not taking an unambiguous position for or against any one of them.
Were Putin to do so, he would intensify the anger of the opponents of this or that figure without necessarily gaining real support from those who like that leader. And consequently, Shirikov suggests, the Russian leader is seeking to rely “not on the energy of one of these camps” but rather “on the hatred” that arises from the division itself.
Moreover, the Slon.ru commentator continues, Putin and his command are hardly the only players in Russian public life to do this. Virtually all do so, including even “certain liberal thinkers,” because these various groups find it a welcome opportunity whenever they “hate” their particular bête noires.
These hatreds “are so deep and radical” that they go far beyond the framework of any public discussion. When these discussions do take place, those on each side end more committed to their initial position and with more hatred toward those who take the contrary one. Given that, “only sentences curses, shootings, expulsions and the like are possible.”
These arguments about the past and the hatreds they reflect and intensify replace real “arguments about the present and future,” a development that Shirikov argues the regime welcomes and even plays up precisely so it can pursue its own goals rather than be tied to one side or another of a real political debate
Despite what some may think, Shirikov concludes, “the contemporary Russian state is not fighting with its own people but is doing something not less stupid and shameful: it is forcing its people to fight with itself,” even if that has to take the form of “eternally arguing about dictators” some honor and others despise.
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