Staunton, January 16 – Many commentators suggest that Vladimir Putin is trying to restore an updated version of the Soviet Union and point to his return to many Soviet policies at home and abroad, but it is critically important to understand, Andrey Zubov argues, that people recognize that the Kremlin leader is restoring Soviet but not Communist values.
In an interview with Lithuania’s Delfi news agency, the Russian historian and former MGIMO faculty member says in contrast to the countries of Eastern Europe, Russia has broken only with communism but not with Sovietism and that unless it does with both, it risks a return to totalitarianism or to decay (ru.delfi.lt/opinions/comments/andrej-zubov-sejchas-dlya-rossii-moment-vybora.d?id=66877896).
The current Moscow elite consists of “the descendants of those who occupied the Baltic countries and persecuted the opponents of Soviet power.” Its members have benefitted from the privatization of Soviet wealth, but they were never forced from power and replaced by those who rejected many other Soviet values.
Today, Zubov argues, Russians face a choice between making the difficult but necessary choice between continuing as they are with the possibility that their country will either decay or restore a new kind of totalitarianism or have the chance to make the progress toward democracy and freedom that East Europeans have.
That choice has been sharpened by the actions of the Kremlin, on the one hand, and the impact of the declines in oil prices and the ruble exchange rate which have left the Moscow leadership without the resources to buy the population off and thus continue the Soviet-type policies natural too them.
According to Zubov, “2014 turned out to be the moment of truth” because the issues that were not fully addressed in 1991-1993 “have returned.” Indeed, he says, “we are seeing the return of soviet but not communist values, in the guise of a corporate state of a fascist type … Not a Nazi but fascist type because [Russia] has no racial policy.” Such a state is authoritarian “with inclinations toward totalitarianism.”
Among his other observations, Zubov points out that the poll numbers Putin has even now reflect not just the fear of repression but the fear Russians have that the country could slide back toward what happened in 1991 and under Yeltsin. That helps explain what Putin has done in Ukraine: by seizing Crimea, he has reminded Russians of what they think happened in 1991 and thus transformed in their eyes the Maidan into a “smuta” that must be suppressed.
But now that it has become clear that Putin’s pans to dismember Ukraine fully and replace the Poroshenko regime have been blocked, Zubov says, “the Russian authorities are in a position close to despair and when the economy began to get worse, this despair grew into real horror.” There is not any optimism in the Kremlin now.
Putin and his entourage understand something else as well, Zubov says. They recognize that “everything can with unbelieavable speed lead to a social catastrophe,” and as former KGB officers who watched what happened in the USSR, “they now with horror await this revolution,” even though “a revolution is less probable than they think.”
The reason for that is that there is not an opposition capable of leading one, at least not yet. Consequently, the regime still has a choice: it can turn away from its imperialism in Ukraine and restore ties with the West or it can continue as it is and thus play a role in pushing Russia to “a social catastrophe” and ‘a Russian rising’” against the regime.
Zubov also provides an intriguing answer to the question of why so many rightwing parties in Europe nonetheless support Putin and his policies. “In contemporary Western society,” he says, the chief value is the individual” regardless of language or faith. “This is liberalism raised to the highest degree.”
Indeed, it is unprecedented in the world, and it is not entirely surprising that it has generated a backlash. “The right and also the left appeal to the old values of race, national culture, historical religion, class, the glorious past of their own people and so on. Thus we have a clash of two value systems – one based on the individual and one based on the group.”
Zubov says that he does not think Russia will risk moving against the Baltic countries because of their membership in NATO, but for Russian aggression against them to be impossible in future, “or course, there must be a different regime in Russia, one that corresponds to the regimes of Europe and not a post-Soviet regime as now.”
Russia could play that role successfully, Zubov says, just as post-1945 Germany is now playing a major and positive role on the continent, something that would have been impossible if Germany had not undergone a thoroughgoing de-Nazification process.
The Moscow historian says that Russia is not a totalitarian state now but rather an authoritarian one in which citizens have some freedoms but one where the regime does not pay any attention to their views when it makes decisions. That regime has maintained itself by among other things falsification of elections.
“But now [Russia] stands before a fork in the road – one which leads to totalitarianism of a nationalist-fascist type, with corresponding consequences both for Russia and for the entire world and the other which leads to democracy, a free market and the observance of human rights. The result of the second would be the return of Russia to Europe and of freedom, security and well-being to Russians.”
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