Saturday, February 8, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Seeking to Impose Iran-Like Repression on Russia, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 8 – Vladimir Putin is seeking to impose many of the same kinds of social constraints on Russians that the ayatollahs have imposed on Iranians for 35 years, a clear warning of the possibility that a once westernized country can move in the opposite direction but only at the cost of freedom and its future, according to a Russian commentator.

            Whether Putin is copying Iran “intentionally or accidentally,” Sergey Shelin argues in an article on, is less significant than the fact that the policies Putin is pursuing resemble those of the ayatollahs so closely that their implications should be a matter of concern not only for Russians but for Putin himself (

If one goes beyond Putin’s talk about “spiritual constraints,” the commentator continues, what he and his backers want is clear: “they want to create such a mass of prohibitions for us that everyone will think about them all the time” be it in the choice of the words they use on the Internet or the choice of friends they make.

Apparently to the current Russian regime, such permanently frightened people appear to be “the ideal object of administration and a guarantee of the eternity of the system.”

            “Unconsciously or perhaps even completely intentionally,” Shelin says, Putin and those who are pushing for such arrangements are “guided by the order which has ruled in Iran already 35 years following the victory of the popular revolution in 1979.” Indeed, he suggests, what the ayatollahs have done appeared to be “the dream of our guardians.”

            They want, Shelin says, to see religion penetrate into all aspects of life, they want control over the sexual lives of the population and want to prohibit homosexuality or even execute those who engage in homosexual acts, they want to “scrupulously filter Western films, music and so on,” and they want to monitor and regularly block access to the Internet and social media.

            Perhaps this should not have come as a surprise, the commentator says, given that Russia and Iran share many similarities: they are both large and multi-ethnic, they are both petro-states, they are both urban with low growth rates, and what is most concerning they were both “westernized” in the past but are moving away from that.

            The last shah was “a big modernizer.” His country featured “secular education, girls in mini-skirts, hordes of western specialists, porno films, agrarian reform and rock music and the development of contemporary industry and easy access to alcohol.” Moreover, under the shah, the Iranian economy grew rapidly, although the benefits were hardly equally distributed.

            But the shah was also a tyrant who, like Peter the Great, sought to “drive his people along the road of progress without any explanations.”  But in the end, the changes he introduced and the way he introduced them led to a revolution that not only led to his exile but to the imposition of new spiritual restrictions on behavior.

            When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, he put in place exactly the same “restrictions” which Putin and his regime are now copying.  But these restrictions reflected the nature not of Iran today but of the Iran of 35 years ago, when a majority of the population consisted of illiterate peasants and when bazaaris were only slightly removed from such people.

            At that time but not now in Iran and certainly not in Russia, the authority of the clergy was unquestioned, many women wore hijabs even though they didn’t have to, “the westernized minority of Iranians was surrounded by popular hatred,” and when, as a result of the strength of families, the population was growing rapidly.

            In 1979 and immediately thereafter, Shelin continues, the elimination of westernization seemed to be “a realistic task” in Iran, especially given the focus of the regime and the population on the war with Iraq, although with time, it became clear in Iran that it had only been “driven into the underground and would launch counter-attacks.”

            Today, “the typical Iranian is not a dark arrival from the village, but a literate urban resident.” Some prohibitions introduced and accepted after the revolution have begun to fall away, but “the most important” – “the segregation of women, the constant control over the way of life and recreation and clerical diktat” – have remained, even though they are increasingly viewed as “barbarism and an unbearable burden.”

            Initially, the ayatollahs saw these restrictions as something that helped them keep the population in check and themselves in power, Shelin argues, “but today the ruling clerical-police class of Iran has discovered that it has become the hostage of [these] ‘restrictions.’”  That is because if they are overturned by the population, there would be no role for the ayatollahs.

            That has led most of the Iranian clerics to dig in, but doing so has only heightened the tensions between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people.  If Putin and his team want to learn a lesson from Iran, Shelin concludes, that is the most important one, but it appears that he and they have learned just the opposite and ultimately self-destructive one.

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