Monday, June 19, 2017

Putin’s Talk of Digital Russia Country's Latest Potemkin Village, Pastukhov Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 17 – Vladimir Putin’s unexpected talk about the Internet and even “a digital Russia” is the latest example of the old Russian tactic of erecting Potemkin villages to suggest something that doesn’t exist to someone who needs to be convinced that it does, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.

            In this case, however, it isn’t the tsar himself who needs to be persuaded of that but rather young people who are put off by Putin’s own conservative back to the past and who are thus in play for the upcoming presidential elections and need to be catered to at least at the symbolic level, the St. Antony’s scholar says (

            The discovery that in post-“Crimea is Ours” Russia there is such a group, Pastukhov says, has forced Putin “out of his political comfort zone,” the place where he can occupy himself with the preservation of all that he wants to preserve from the Soviet past, and compelled him to look to a future which in the nature of things does not have a place for like the leader he has been.

            As a result, he or more precisely his political technologists are trying to present him as something that he is not, someone focused on the future rather than the past and who can thus win over the young without in fact taking any steps that would cost him his base in the conservative majority he now is supported by.

            That the Putin who speaks about a digital Russia is an invention is something about which there can be no doubt: when Dmitry Medvedev was president, his spokesman noted that Putin didn’t use the Internet or social networks and didn’t even see any particular value in them for himself or others.

            Now, however, Putin’s associates are suggesting that he has been “reborn” as a digital-savvy leader.  But it doesn’t require much thought to recognize that this is all about the upcoming election rather than a real change of heart, the UK Russian historian and commentator argues.

            According to Pastukhov, “Putin, in contrast to Medvedev, as before remains completely indifferent to gadgets and all their offspring and the main reason she has suddenly begun to talk about them is the return of the theme of the future in discussions of the Russian political agenda.”

            “The future,” he says, “is ceasing to be a distant abstraction; and this if you will is the main distinction of the upcoming electoral cycle from the previous one. Putin is only seeking to bring himself into line with political circumstances that have unexpectedly changed” and to create “an illusion” that he is a man of the future as well.

            But in fact, the analyst says, “nostalgia for the past and fear of the future were and remain up to now the main reasons why Russian society resigns itself to any small or large sins committed by the Russian powers that be, including greed and corruption.  After all, we have seen still worse times.”

            That was fine as a political strategy as long as most people remembered Soviet times, but now there is a younger generation for which “the Soviet past is just as distant an abstraction as fearing for the future is for ‘Putin’s support group.’”  And that younger group is, even after Crimea, one that political leaders must find a way to attract and win over.

            The conservative even archaic language Putin has used up to now won’t work and so Putin is presenting himself as a new digital leader, even though the notion of a digital Russia will be just another “Potemkin façade of the real Russia,” Pastukhov suggests. The problem, of course, is that “there is no place” for this statistical place in Russia today.

            “Present-day technologies are incompatible with the archaic structure of Russian power, with its unlimited legal nihilism, with its greedy ‘family’ monopolies, with its legalized corruption and all-permissive ‘criminal matrix,’ and which has force structures that are not under anyone’s control, including that of Putin himself.

            But even that is “not the main thing,” Pastukhov says.  Rather it is this: the more Putin promotes the idea of a digital Russia, the more obvious he makes himself an anachronism that can be seen by all. That limits how far he can go in using this tactic, but because it will soon be obvious that it is only a tactic, that too will have some negative consequences for his future.

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