Sunday, July 24, 2016

Support for Putinism Reflects Continuities from Soviet Past, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 24 – Many things changed in Russian society after 1991, Lev Gudkov says; but those “connected with collective identity and with the institutions tht produce it,” that is, the political system, changed the least, something that can be seen if one takes a longer view on Russian attitudes.

            If one does that, the Levada Center director says in a speech that was delivered at the Sakharov Center in February posted online now (, neither the rise of Russian nationalist feelings nor the overwhelmingly popular support for Vladimir Putin and his regime will be something unexpected.

            Unfortunately, the sociologist says, few Russians think about longterm developments, preferring instead to react to short-term ones and thus they miss many of the continuities that are obscured by this or that jolting change in society, especially in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

            If one adopts a longer view, he suggests, it becomes clear that “those spheres of life and relationships which are not connected with collective identity and with the institutions that produce it changed most rapidly of all,” while those involving the political system and its supports ranging from the siloviki to the education system changed very little.

                “Economic relations have changed, mass culture has changed, the character and system of consumption has changed to the point of approaching the level of relatively well-off European countries.” Initially, the media changed, Gudkov says, but “after 2003, the Putin regime moved to restore many of the features of its Soviet past.

            Unfortunately, far too many people have a limited understanding of what totalitarianism involved and consequently they do not think about what elements of that system have in fact continued to function. When people think about totalitarianism, they think “exclusively” about repressions, the GULAG, collectivization … and all the horrors of mass terror.”

            But “in fact,” he says, those things are “only a very small part” of that kind of system and indeed should be viewed as “secondary” rather than primary in defining it. That distinction becomes critical, Gudkov argues, when one thinks about what comes “after” totalitarianism and asks how societies react and what they address or fail to address.

            The Levada Center director says that from his point of view, “we are dealing since the beginning of the 2000s with an attempt if not at the restoration of a totalitarian regime then with its modification.” The new system doesn’t feature an ideology about the future or terror as the Soviet one did. 

            However, “the disappearance of terror does not mean the disappearance of the system of pressure and social control.” Instead, “via corruption” and “double think,” people learn to adapt themselves to the values of those in power, “deceiving [them], deceiving themselves, and deceiving others” in order to remain in a comfort zone.

            One can say, Gudkov continues, that “force is an extraordinarily important characteristic of such stystems. One can even say that force is the dominant code of all social relations. Why? Because the state monopolizes the right to define the picture of collective valiues,” of what the nation in fact is.

            And that national whole is alaways connected with the state, something “very traditional and very important for the population,” which it always views in a positive way with talk about “’the heroic past,’” about “’the big country,’” and about both how the empire was build and what it meant for Russians and their relations with others.

            In addition to the specific features of this view of the past, such a stratification of the definition of the nation has another and equally powerful effect, the sociologist says: “it means the complete disqualification of the values of individual and private existence” relative to the values of the people and state as a single whole.

            Western culture, Gudkov says, is always based “on the need for comproise, for taking into account the values of more than one thing because European culture arose out of a competition of various forces: cities with the emperor, religion confessions and churches with each other,” and so on.

            But in Russia, he argues, “we are dealing with the cultivation of vaues of only a one-dimensional collective consciousness, that values force and the systematic exclusion of the significance of private existence.” Confronted with that, a Russian has little choice but to adapt and be loyal or at least keep quiet.

             This puts Russians into a kind of “collective hostage” situation, one in which individuals do not dare defend their own intersts because that inevitably brings them into conflict with the interests of others and thus weakens the whole.  That has the effect of “sterilizing all mechanisms of ethnicss and principles of morality and the common good.”

            Those arrangements arose in Soviet times and they have not disappeared. Indeed, they may now be stronger precisely because they are based on the state’s control of the media rather than the state’s use of coercive force.

            “But the collapse of the USSR liquidated the feeling of being part of a great power, a suer power when ‘everyone respected us because they feared us.’” That led to anger and frustration, and it is significant that as recently as 2013, most Russians believed that their country had lost the status of a great power despite all of Putin’s efforts to suggest otherwise.

            He began “approximately in 2004” to push for a recovery of that status by insisting on the reevaluation of the Soviet past. “From this came the rehabilitation of Stalin and the very important thesis of Putin that ‘we have nothing to be ashamed of about our past,’ ‘we have a great country,’ ‘a great past,’ and ‘every country has skeletons in its closet.’”

            Looking back, Gudkov says, he has concluded that “Putin in a certain sense is the embodiment of ‘the average man’ … with all his complexes, sadism and force, limited nature and from this has arisen an inclination to shows of force. And what is extraordinarily important to denigrate others and demonstrate one’s own triumphs.”

            Thus, he continues, “the current upsurge of patriotism is not accidental in any way and more than that it is completely justified.”  Repression alone would not have produced that, but talk about traditional values has played a key role as has fears about a Maidan in Russia that woud send it off in another unknown direction.

            What is on offer in Russia now “is not simply a revival of an old conscioiusness but also a rebirth of those paternalistic illusions” that formed the view among Soviet citizens that the state must impose order and secure social justice for everyone even though people are aware that the state will be deceptive about that.

            To the extent that the illusory quality of such hopes becomes obvioius, it can become “the foundation for strong mass dissatisfaction,” Gudkov says. “But this dissatisfaction is realized not in political activity or in a wiliness to participate in something but in displaced aggression in the form of xenophobia.”

            Indeed, the maximum level of xenophobia in Russian society was in October 2013 and not as some imagine in 2014 because in the latter year, “xenophobia and internal aggression were focused and channeled on Ukraine.”  So far, Russians have been relatively patient in waiting for a turnaround and thus supported the powers that be. How long that will last, however, isn’t clear.

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