Staunton, December 16 – More than in most countries, Vladimir Pastukhov says, shifts from one historical era to another in Russia have been marked by high-profile court cases. That is what happened most notably in the 1930s under Stalin: that is what is happening now under Vladimir Putin given the conviction of Aleksey Ulyukayev.
To make that case, the St. Antony’s College Russian historian offers ten theses about what this latest case says about the Putin regime and what its outcome portends for the next presidential term of the Russian president (republic.ru/posts/88438).
First of all, Pastukhov says, the case shows that the outcome of this trial and presumably others like it in the future depends not on evidence but on the views of Putin personally. Because the chief accuser of Ulyukayev refused to testify, the foundation of the case against Ulyukayev would have collapsed had it not been for Putin’s statement that Ulyukayev was guilty.
The UK-based Russian historian says that in his opinion, “there are not and will not be any significant sentences handed out without Putin’s personal approval just as there were no significant sentences in the 1930s that Stalin had not approved in advance.”
Second, and arising from this, these outcomes will depend on who can influence Putin; and that sets the stage for an intensification of conflicts within the Kremlin elite among various groups for access. In this case, Igor Sechin gained the upper hand; but there is no guarantee and indeed there is a high probability that that won’t always be the case.
Third, the Ulyukayev outcome shows that “rumors about the political death of Sechin are somewhat exaggerated.” At present, he has the ability to get to Putin, and that makes him “the most dangerous competitor for all the other comrades in arms of the leader.” That “confirms his special status” and ultimately his fate.
Fourth, while Sechin won this battle, it is unclear why he joined it given what he got. And that suggests, Pastukhov says, that there is more going on with him or about him than has yet been revealed. If there isn’t, it is difficult to explain why he made the aggressive moves that he did.
Fifth, reporting about the case creates the impression that “Ulyukayev suffered not so much because he blocked Sechin’s plans for the privatization of Rosneft but rather because he turned out to be on the line of fine between two clans,” his own and that of Dmitry Medvedev. Given the outcome so far, each only managed a tie with the other.
Sixth, Pastukhov continues, one can reasonably conclude that “Putin has acted under Sechin’s influence but not in his interests but rather in [Putin’s] own.” The Kremlin leader used this case to send the population a message at the time of his election campaign that Putin is ready “from time to time” to take on corruption.
And the case as Putin managed it also sent “a signal to the apparatus that no one is protected from charges or from jail;” and that suggests that the next term of the Kremlin leader will be marked by “fear and cheep populism” which will become “the chief instruments of the authorities.”
Seventh, neither the population at large nor the elite may react to this as Putin hopes. The people may want more officials charged and sent to jail; and the top people in business and the regime may come to understand that “loyalty is ceasing to be an indulgence against repression” and that they can be treated as opponents of the regime for doing what the regime does.
That represents “a fundamental change” in the way the senior people have assumed things operate. And in time, it could as it did earlier lead to a recognition that “terror is for everyone” and cause those just below the very top of the power vertical to take measures to protect themselves.
That is what Stalin’s entourage did on his death in 1953; and the steps they took had the effect “40 years later” of leading to perestroika and collapse.
Eighth, “paradoxically,” Pastukhov says, “form an historical point of view, Ulyukayev’s sentence is a useful event” because it will destroy the widely held myth that the Kremlin only uses cases against its political opponents when in fact it is prepared to use them against all and sundry. That is a useful but still-unlearned lesson for Russians and people in the West to have.
Ninth, “the tragicomic result of this fake judicial proceeding will be the appearance in Russia of yet another fighter with the regime in spite of himself.” Ulyukayev, hardly an attractive figure before, now comes out as a victim rather than a victimizer, much in the same way that Nikolay Bukharin did as a result of Stalin’s persecution of him.
“Ulyukayev’s case is a paraphrase of Bukharin,” just as Bukharin was the predecessor of Ulyukayev on “’economic issues,’” the Russian historian says. “Bukhrain too bore responsibility for all the crimes of the regime, the victim of which he at the end was but in history he has remained as a man who suffered from injustice.”
And tenth, “for Sechin,” Pastukhov says, today may be an occasion for celebration; but in the future, “this sentence does not bode anything good. The real sentence Ulyukayev received is a Pyrrhic victory” because from now on, Sechin has to play his own political came of “one against all” because he simultaneously generates “two feelings: fear and hatred.”
It is possible and even likely, the historian concludes, that Putin on whom Sechin now relies may come to feel the same things and act against him. After all, “the entire experience of Russian history shows that the fate of favorites is not a happy one. None of them became successors – and being forgotten was hardly the worst thing that happened to them.”