Staunton, March 22 – The most terrible thing for Russia about its war in Ukraine is the extent to which that conflict has “contributed to the transformation of an authoritarian regime into a neo-totalitarian one,” something with horrific consequences far more difficult to overcome than the war itself, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
In an essay on Polit.ru yesterday, the St. Antony’s College historian says that neo-totalitarianism, which has arisen out of Vladimir Putin’s strategy and his war in Ukraine, has “once again driven Russian into a historical dead end,” which it cannot escape by continuing to go in the same direction (polit.ru/article/2015/03/21/trap/).
That in turn means, he suggests, that Russia will once again be faced with a sharp break in historical continuity, something that could take the form of degeneration or a revolution or both.
Pastukhov defines neo-totalitarianism as “a malignant form of authoritarianism, its degeneration which became possible in the 20th century when, on the one hand, the mass personality appeared, and on the other, technologies for administering mass consciousness arose,” something that has in their way led to “a return to ‘high tech’ medievalism.”
The “main distinction” of neo-totalitarianism from authoritarianism, he suggests, is “the means with the help of which the masses are excluded from the political process. In the case of authoritarianism, the means are primitive and obvious” and leave the masses with a sense of exclusion and depression.
But “in the case of neo-totalitarianism, on the contrary, the masses are brought into an active and [Pastukhov says he would suggest] a hyper-active state.” They are given “the illusion of pseudo-inclusiveness” in politics, with “the masses feeling themselves the creator and demiurge of history,” when in fact they have no role at all.
“People do not recognize that they are the victims of manipulation, in essence of mass hypnosis. Rather it seems to them that they themselves have taken all the decisions when in fact the decisions readymade were transplanted into their heads.” That builds the regime’s power, but it becomes the main “’problem’” for the regime when the latter “exhausts itself” as it will.
Such a regime can only keep this level of tension up for so long, Pastukhov continues, because it is “impossible to defeat the whole world” in a war. Either it will suffer defeat as Hitler’s Germany did or it “will be forced to enter a regime of ‘peaceful coexistence’ as did the USSR and thus lower the degree of mobilized hysteria.”
Then, “the problem of the ‘neo-totalitarian inheritance’” will become the central issue for Russia. “Russia, which never had a civil society again has been given as ersatz one in exchange, something that “makes the further path of the historical development of Russia still more torturous.”
That is because it is not just a question of building a civil society “from zero” but rather will require in addition the cleansing of the public space of the “ideological and political trash” which the neo-totalitarian project will have left behind, a kind of detritus that will continue to “throw in imperial convulsions” as a result of what that regime has done.
The St. Antony’s scholar then observers that “everything has not only consequences but also a cause,” and he points to Putin’s program of “sovereign democracy” as the cause of the rise of neo-totalitarianism and the war in Ukraine. That program involved “not the destruction of democratic institutions but their neutralization.”
“Public discussion was driven out of the mass information field into Internet reservations,” elections and the courts were brought under complete control, “but even after this,” Pastukhov says, “society as a whole remained more alive than dead.” And consequently, Putin’s regime moved against “the receptors of democracy” by vitiating its institutions.
But Putin had a problem, the scholar continues. “The more destructive became the social processes and the more obvious was the degradation of the power vertical, the more it became necessary [for the Kremlin] to turn up the head of the propaganda iron” and that ultimately required the launching of a war.
“War became a necessary condition for the survival of the regime, and it began strictly according to script. Ukraine, of course, was an occasion and far from a cause.” The Kremlin needed a war and so it created one. But in doing so, it triggered something else: “Into the Ukrainian war went one people and out of it came a completely different one.”
“At that moment arose that very pseudo-inclusiveness which distinguishes totalitarianism from authoritarianism,” Pastukhov says. “Earlier the inhabitant tolerated this regime; now it has become his heart’s desire,” the object of his “passion.” And passion is not something that can be “overcome rationally.” It can only be displaced by “another passion.”
That is a real danger for the regime because it means that “the political course chosen by it at a moment of crisis is now one with no alternatives.” The Kremlin may be willing to trade away the Donbas for Western recognition of spheres of influence, but its newly mobilized population is not so pragmatic and would tear the regime apart if it did so.
As a result, Pastukhov concludes, “the chief threat to the regime comes now not from the left, not from the liberals or the democrats, but from the right, from ‘the black hundred.’” Putin’s supporters now will support him as long as he maintains his current course, but if he changes, they are ready to desert him for Strelkov.
“Putin thus cannot allow himself any maneuvering, he can go only forward from one victory to another” until he loses. And when that happens as “sooner or later,” it will, “then the black hundred waves, generated by the Crimea earthquake will sweep across Russia,” with all the horrific consequences that one can expect.