Staunton, Aug. 29 – Many observers blame the failure of Russians to oppose Putin on the war as the result either of the historical subservience of the people there to their rulers and to the related sense they have that nothing depends on them and therefore there is no need for them to take a position in opposition to the regime.
Those factors matter, of course, Irina Busygina, a Russian scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center, acknowledges; but she argues that “attitudes toward the war which we see in Russia are the result of the last 20 years of the construction and operation of the Putin system” (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/08/27/voenno-razdatochnyi-putinizm).
“During that period,” she says, Putin has created a system in which not only those close to the throne “but also broad social groups have won something or at least have come to perceive themselves as winners, even if they do not formulate that status in words.” As a result, they are inclined to support or at least not oppose those responsible for that success.
To be sure, this is not the kind of inclusiveness often viewed as “the prerequisite for democracy.” Instead, “it is the kind of growth that maintains the undemocratic status quo” given that its main feature is that all groups benefit but some benefit far more than other. The gap is less important than it may seem because people compare themselves within their own group
According to Busygina, this isn’t “a primitive system at all.” It is complex and “a whole art” because those in power must “give enough but not too much” and dose out what they give in such a way that everyone feels he or she has benefited even if much has been taken away from them and everyone else.
“In this highly sophisticated system … where the state of ‘we are generally satisfied’ is maintained in large groups, she continues, “asking for any change will not only be risky because then the powers that be will take away what they gave but almost insane,” the US-based Russian scholar says.
Consequently, “supporting the system or at least not speaking out against it openly is rational; and anyone who violates this rule becomes an outcast and a dangerous madman whom the group will immediately expel from itself.” But this of course is “only part of the story,” Busygina says.
“Group reactions might be different if losses were taken into account, especially if they were viewed as significant.” Thus, “to prevent this from happening, the system constantly monitors the situations so that groups will focus on what the system has given and not on what it has taken away.”
Russians long ago stopped thinking about democracy and liberalism. These ideas were discredited even before Putin came to power. Putin simply excluded them completely from politics; and Russians “gradually lost the ability to discuss serious topics,” let alone act on any conclusions they might reach.
“This has gone on for years, and 23 years is a long time. Over time, this combination has worked: ‘I won’ and ‘it cost me practically nothing.’ The gains are tangible but the prices are not.” The Kremlin quite obvious “took everything into account.”
And that means that “when Putin launched his war against Ukraine, everything was already prepared: the calculation was that the Kremlin would get precisely the public response it has.” Outside observers may be bewildered; but those within the system feel “deep satisfaction” because all their calculations and efforts have worked.