Saturday, March 31, 2018

Russians Still Far from Recognizing that Crimea May be Theirs but Regime Isn’t, Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 31 – Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian historian based in London, says that he is not inclined to overestimate the political importance of the protests that have broken out over the Kemerovo tragedy or the problems of trash disposal in Moscow oblast because Russians’ consciousness remains split between the social and the political.

            That is, he said on the “Personally Yours” program of Ekho Moskvy yesterday, Russians are “today prepared for social and humanitarian protests against injustice” but they are not “ready to draw far-reaching political conclusions” or combine with others (

                “Sooner or later,” of course, “some spark will appear and these two consciousnesses will be combined into one.” But there is no reason to think that “this will occur soon or that the spark will jump from the fire in Kemerovo,” Pastukhov continues. For the two to come together will require “some special event.”
            Members of “’the Putin majority’” are engaged in protests in Kemerovo and Volokolamsk, but these are not risings “against the system.” Rather they are extremely specific in their targets and even explicitly non-political in their manner and goals. And “like peasant uprisings, they will for a very long time remain local,” isolated and thus not a threat for the regime.
            Pastukhov says that he was most surprised by the fact that an official in Kemerovo appealed to Putin as “’comrade president,’” an indication of how out of date such people are. They are clearly living in the past and can’t even imagine the nature of the world in which people are living today.

            There are two distinct kinds of reasons behind the Kemerovo fire, the Russian historian continues. On the one hand, people everywhere try to save money and cut corners, especially if they can get officials to go along with them. But on the other, the Putin regime and especially those at the top bear responsibility for what has happened.

            That is because the regime has “tried to create ‘the ninth wonder of the world,’ a special Russian-style legal order in which a small group of people can do anything they want and violate any law and in which everyone else must live strictly according to the law.”  That isn’t possible because those below will inevitably be infected by the attitudes of those above them.

            There is yet another aspect to this, Pastukhov continues. Over the last 18 months, the Kremlin has tried to reconstruct the Russian system. “It has been trying to introduce ‘Stalinism without Stalinism,’ that is, it has continued to be absolutely loyal to its favorites.” But at the same time, it wants to be “merciless” in its attacks on everyday corruption.

            That isn’t sustainable either, the historian says. But its shortcomings are most in evidence at a time of crisis like the one following the Kemerovo fire. Putin’s system is based on  “hypocrisy” because “that is one of the system-forming elements of the Russian mentality” on which he can rely.

            One must understand, Pastukhov says, that “people are tied to the television not because they believe it … They are because there exists an algorithm of loyal behavior which has been set in stone by centuries of adaptation” to the Russian powers first under serfdom and then under the demands of the Soviet state.

            But Russians experience what people in the West call “’a panic attack’” when the gap between what the television shows them and what they see with their own eyes.  Unfortunately, neither most Russians nor Putin and his team are yet capable of viewing themselves from the outside and so they have not developed “the critical consciousness” others have.

            That shortcoming, Pastukhov says, limits their ability to organize and Putin’s ability to respond to changing circumstances and change direction. Putin came to power with his own agenda, but now he is trapped by those he has installed around him, limiting his ability to deal with how much has changed. 

            In sum, the historian argues, Putin “is a hostage of this stratum; and he cannot pursue any other course beside the one which this stratum finds suitable to itself.” Only when large numbers of this stratum change their views will he change; and “from that point we are still quite far removed.”

            Turning to foreign policy, Pastukhov says that the threat of global war is now greater than at any point in the last 60 years but that “only part” of the reasons for that “are connected with Russia, including having an elite that relies on force and bluffs to get its way with other governments and to maintain itself in power.

            But there is a third reason which is the most worrisome of all, the Russian historian says; and it is this: US President Donald Trump has far more power than his Russian counterpart, but he shares with Putin the mentality of a risk taker and “adventurist.”  Moreover, both leaders believe that there is no other acceptable position besides their own.

            That is a recipe for disaster; and it is compounded by the fact that Western countries are far from united when it comes to Russia. Liberals there support democracy and “therefore they don’t accept the policies of the Kremlin.” But business leaders and some in the bureaucracy view Putin “simply as a hero and an ideal.

            “Some of these simply want to make money – they are the majority,” Pastukhov says.  Some simply want to avoid getting involved in anything they don’t believe will directly affect them personally. And some see in Putin and his system the kind of leader and arrangements they would like in their own countries.

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