Staunton, December 26 –The tragedy of Putin in his next presidential term is that Russia desperately needs to change in one direction or another even though the only thing the current Kremlin leader wants is for everything to remain just as it is now, Vladimir Pastukhov says; and that is leading to a revolutionary situation that could transform Russia more than any in the past.
In an essay on the Republic portal, the St. Antony’s College historian argues that today, Putin’s regime is “in a zone of maximum political comfort.” That is, “not one of the challenges” it faces domestically or internationally “is a mortal threat to its existence because he has “successfully put down … the three key elements of a revolutionary situation – economic dissatisfaction, social activity, and an institutional crisis” (republic.ru/posts/88684).
But as Yury Pivovarov pointed out in his work on the February 1917 revolution, “in the formation of a revolutionary situation what is important is not so much the objective indicators of a crisis as it subjective understanding.” Sometimes a shallow crisis can overturn things; and sometimes a deeper one won’t.
“The memory of the 1990s has made the current generation of Russians extraordinarily tolerant,” Pastukhov continues. They will put up with a lot as did the post-World War II one which was acceptant of its lot as long as there is no war. And they still give Putin credit for the fat years of the first decade of this century.
But “one mustn’t ignore the fact that at the end of Putin’s fourth term, the political activity of the generations who experienced the 1990s has declined and in its place have come those for whom the 1990s are just as much a legend as is the USSR.” They are responding differently as the protests of 2011-2012 showed.
Putin was able to retain control over this challenge by his “colonial” wars in Ukraine and Syria and the “post-communist neo-imperialist project” they reflect. And he did so by recognizing that “he doesn’t need control over the entire society but that it is sufficient to run the key processes” in the media and elsewhere.
In many ways, the system he put in place resembled the old communist one, the historian says; “but if in communist times behind the façade of the decorative soviet system the party vertical with its ideological code ruled everything, in Putin’s Russia behind its façade of pseudo-democracy, all is run … by understandings drawn from the criminal world.”
This suits Putin just fine and he would continue it forever if he could. His problem is that it is “practically impossible” for him to do so. But so far, he has been unwilling to make a choice between the two most obvious ways forward: a mobilizational and militarist society at odds with the world and a society committed to democratic reforms and good relations with the West.
Moscow today lacks the resources for the former, and so Putin has lost his ability to use the patriotic levers he did earlier. And he can move in the other direction only by retreating and by competing with the opposition on the issues of corruption. If he does that, however, he will be “cutting off the limb on which he is sitting.”
Thus, Putin’s tragedy: “It is necessary to change something but one must not change anything because the existing system is ideal” from his perspective. And that means, Pastukhov says, that “in the next few years, he will be forced to exit from “his political paradise” and change or have change forced upon him.
Putin has given certain indications that he understands the need for genuine economic reform and modernization. Indeed, one can say that today “there is no argument abot whether to modernize Rusisa or not but rather about how and when to modernize it,” by a turn toward modernization by force or toward “’modernization with a human face.’”
This argument is personalized at least symbolically between the positions of Igor Sechin who is quite prepared for change in the direction of the former and Kseniya Sobchak who wants change in the opposite direction. But for Putin, neither is persuasive because each may not leave him with a place in the political Olympus.
However, increasingly the choice is not jus this to make. There are forces within the regime, within Russian society, and internationally that are combining to force him to move whether he wants to or not and quite possibly in directions that will sweep his system if not him personally from the scene.
Up to now, Pastukhov argues, “Putin has successfully managed conflicts in his entourage; ow, these conflicts will run him. He is losing operational space for political maneuver and will be forced to move iin tht direction which will be defined by the outcomes of struggles in the apparat.”
A major reason for this change is that there are now forces outside his control that some within the apparatus may be ready to appeal to. Those inside up until the present have sought to gain influence over him at the expense of their rivals, but now they may seek power by appealing beyond the apparatus to emerging revolutionary forces like Aleksey Navalny.
“Navalny’s voice is the voice of awakening chaos,” the historian says, noting that “in the Kremlin, they understand that this is a threat but do not understand well what to do with it. An antidote against Navalny doesn’t exist because he is a projection of the destructive activity of the authorities on society.”
He is in short, “the shadow cast by Putin on Russian history.”
“In the 20th century, Russia experienced four revolutions: now, it faces a fifth. A fifth revolution is worse than a fifth column because someone can manage the fifth column but no one can do that with a revolution,” Pastukhov says. “No one has done more for this moment to arise than Valdimir Putin.”
“Russia is entering a transitional era under the sign of counter-revolution and archaic values but it will come out of it under the sign of revolution and modernization.” The point of no return will occur when the views of the elites and populations change and when the revolution rather than Putin becomes the chief actor in the country.
For a time, “everything will look as it does now: Putin will be in the Kremliln, his friends will be around him in ministries and state corporations, the FSB, the police and the courts will work completely under control.” But “the main thing will have changed – the atmosphere in society” when most will expect a revolution and that will become “a self-fulfilling prognosis.”
The question is which of the two kinds of revolution Russia will go through, one from above that might lead to a Pinochet-type regime and one from below that could lead to real changes. Each is possible with the latter bringing even more radical changes than the former, the historian says.
“One way or another,” Pastukhov concludes, “the participation of new generations which came to the front of the stage at the end of Putin’s fourth term will decide the fate of Russia. Forth years after Mikhail Gorbachev began to lead the peoples of Russia out of soviet rule, Putin is losing his hope to become the ruler of Russia for life.”
But that in turn means that “Russia will get a new chance to change its fate.”