Thursday, February 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Could There Be a Huey Long in Russia’s Future?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 20 – Asked to imagine how he would behave if he were elected mayor of Novosbirsk, Russian nationalist commentator Maksim Kalashnikov says he would follow the model of Huey Long, the governor of the US state of Louisiana whose populist rhetoric might have taken him to power in 1936 had he not been assassinated.

            Kalashnikov argues that a skilled Russian politician who is able to come to power in a single city could, by using that as a media base, take power in Russia as a whole given that the country is sinking into a crisis that Moscow itself has created ( and

            Huey Long, “a man who almost came to poer in the US by using his region as a base,” provides the model, showing both the restrictions under which such a city leader in Russia would operate and the ways in which, in the fashion of martial arts, he could transform weakness into strength.

            Like the American governor, Kalashnikov continues, once in office in Novosibirsk, he would find him in a “practicalliy hopeless” situation given that the city budget is in deficit, fighting corruption is hard and long term, and the center would control the security agencies and use them against him.

            But the Russian commentator says he “would not surrender!” Instead, he would make use of Huey Long’s model.  “The main thing” would be to “hold the city on the basis of support of its residents and productive business” until a crisis overwhelmed the center and he could use an alliance of communists and nationalists tocome to power.

            Most revolutionaries in the 20th century came to power “bypassing the stage over power over a city or a region,” but “Long in contrast came to the heights from the position of a governor of a poor southern state.”  If one avoids his mistakes, then his approach could be used by the mayor of a Russian city like Novosibirsk.

            Moscow is running out of money and out of options, Kalashnikov says, and that means that “sooner or later,” the Russian capital will be engulfed by “a time of troubles,” one in which those in power will face their own Maidan or be overthrown by their own “boyars,” the disappointed oligarchs.

            Under such circumstances, anyone who is mayor of a major city could play a serious role, perhaps far more serious than anyone thinks, Kalashnikkov continues.  Governor Long’s case is suggestive: he “came to power by proclaiming a nationalist and socialist program of “Share the Wealth.” 

            A Novosibirsk mayor could do the same by drawing on and comibing “the dissatisfaction of the residents of the city ... the dissatisfaction of Siberia as a whole ... and the dissatisfaction of industrial capital not involved in the raw materials sector.” Making the kind of promises that Long did could win this imaginary mayor the same kind of popularity across Russia.

             Some might counter that Novosibirsk now doesn’t much resemble the Louisiana of the 1930s, Kalashnikov concedes, but he insists there are similarities.  The population of the Siberian city has suffered as a result of de-industrialization much as Louisianans did in the depression, and it hates the oil oligarchs just as they hated Standard Oil.

            Long’s populist rhetoric, his declaration that “each man is a king” and that the wealth of the US should be shared by imposing high taxes on the rich an eliminating them for most, is suggestive, Kalashnikov says. And that is especially the case in a Siberian city at the present time.

            On the one hand, as new data show, incomes there lag those of Russia as a whole; and on the other, Siberians have learned that Moscow has invested in their region much less than it has spent on the Sochi Olympics – and that they are suffering so that Vladimir  Putin can put on a brief show.

            Long expanded his influence, Kalashnikov continues, by linking up with Father Coughlin, a radio broadcaster who called for nationalizing the banks and natural resources, blamed President Franklin Roosevelt for “standing in one rank with ‘godless capitalists, Jews, communists, international bankers and plutocrats.”

            That combination meant that before his assassination in 1935, Long had become more popular in the United States than FDR and that Long might have reasonably expected to become president in 1936 or at least in 1940.  But those possibilities – others would say, that threat – were cut short by his death.

            Kalashnikov suggests that Long could be a model for a Russian mayor now and in the future, especially if that mayor avoided Long’s mistakes.  “The key to success is to head the dissatisfaction of the bit cities and Siberia, of industrialists and agrarians and to become one of the leaders of the struggle against the national denigration of Russians.”

                Obviously, Kalashnikov’s argument is a fantasy. But it is a fantasy that is important to note because it simultaneously suggests some of the ideas that are now swirling in the heads of at least some Russian nationalists and leftists and points to a development that would represent one of the worst fears of those now in power in Moscow.

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