inFOCUS Quarterly Article: Putin’s Russia or Russia’s Putin

VenyaLiberty News

by Ilya Levkov
inFocus Quarterly
Winter 2014

Students of Russian history can be divided into two groups: believers and skeptics. The first accepts the Russian poet-diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev’s (1803-1873) assessment of Russia’s character, concisely explained in four lines that are proudly learned by all Russian pupils and remain deeply engraved in the minds of millions:

One can’t grasp Russia by the mind
Or measure Her by common feeling,
She has a particular inside—
She is a subject only for believing.

Those in the second group are more inclined to support Churchill’s famous summary of Russian character, less poetic but no less descriptive: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Even Tom Clancy, master author of techno-thrillers, once said, “I do not understand Russians; I simply simulate their thoughts and actions.”

These precepts of Russian character can be divided into two broad clusters unique to Russia’s historical development. First, no other political philosophy is as firmly tied to the concept of change as Marxism, and yet change has historically caused grave problems in Soviet society and continues to plague post-Soviet Russia today. What stands between the polity of the Russian people and its adaptation to modern civil society? How are the Russian innovations that revolutionized the country’s agriculture in the 19th century and building practices in the 20th century different from those which allowed Russia to be the first into space and a current producer of some of the world’s most advanced weaponry?

Second, no other country has been created from such a multifaceted cultural framework as Russia:

  • Among the present modern states, Russia is the latest comer to Christianity, deciding to adopt it, rather than Judaism or Islam, as a political calculation to allow Russia to associate with the West.
  • Despite this rational choice, Russia developed its own closed form of Christianity, which never promoted a dialogue within the Church and never underwent a process of Reformation akin to that in the West.
  • Russia has continued to engage in internal debates about the contents and goals of its national ideals. Indeed, Peter Chaadayev, a prominent 19th century Russian philosopher and contemporary of Tyutchev, came to opposite conclusions from Tyutchev regarding Russia’s historical being:

We never followed in the other nations’ paths, nor do we belong to any known human families. We are not with the West, nor with the East, as we do not keep the traditions of either world. We stand alone and outside of time…

As a consequence of publishing such philosophical ruminations, Chaadayev was declared insane by Tsar Nikolas 1st and remained under medical supervision.

  • The process of reform in Russia, free from foreign interference, swings like a pendulum instead of proceeding linearly forward. Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006), a Russian professor of philosophy, the intellectual godfather of the dissident movement, author of several major philosophical novels (including his merciless critique of communism entitled
    The Bright Future), and a Russian exile, eventually came full circle and supported Bolshevism upon returning to Russia after 21 years in the West.
  • Russia has developed neither an organic middle class, nor the independent citizenry that are pre-requisites for the existence and functioning of civil society and democracy.
  • All of Russian political philosophy is framed by the broadly accepted concepts of Futility and Resignation, which are reflected in the nation’s conscience and subconscious. A popular Russian folk fable, for instance, uses such concepts thematically as it recounts the travails of national hero Ilya Murometz. According to the tale, Ilya, upon encountering a Russian Rosetta Stone installed at a fork in his path, is presented with the following options:

Turn right—you will lose your horse.
Turn left—your head will roll.
March forward—troubles are unavoidable.

This parable demonstrates how futility and resignation have become national mottos, submerged and embedded deeply in the Russian psyche. What a far cry from the proactive ruminations offered by Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken!”

Sweeping Changes

President Yeltsin’s interim period transformed Russia from the country it had been during the Soviet period. During his governance the country saw sweeping socio-political changes, including:

  • The implosion of the Soviet Union, which created fourteen independent states in addition to the Russian Federation. Suddenly, Russia was on equal footing with the people who once had been its vassals.
  • The elimination of the Communist Party as the sole political force, a dissolution that sent a tremor through the Soviet old guard establishment, which was unprepared to defend its ideology in the free market of ideas.
  • A Presidential form of government was established and consolidated.
  • In order to prevent any possibility of the return of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), drastic and merciless privatization of Soviet state property occurred, implemented mainly by Anatoly Chubais and Alfred Kokh.

Then Came Putin

The ascent of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency came after Russia underwent dramatic and traumatic political changes. In the short span between the fall of the Soviet era and Putin’s rise, Russia endured decolonization, de-Sovietization, de-collectivism and the creation of an emotional gap in the hearts and minds of most Russian citizens. No society has ever undergone such sudden decompression, including Nazi Germany.

And yet, all these processes of forward-moving political change have been reversed again. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the current period in Russian history and its leader, Vladimir Putin, who has dominated Russian policies and politics for the last 13 years. Putin stated his position on Russia in the first months of his regime: “The greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

This thought, coupled with his background in the KGB, produced Vertical Control, Putin’s particular authoritarian formula for correcting Russia’s ills. The achievements of Vertical Control include the re-idealization of society along old Soviet ideological lines, infused with new and unabashed nationalism and anti-Americanism.

Vertical Control extends from the policy of excluding of Americans from adopting Russian orphans through the tightening of control over TV stations and programming. This trend has been shaped vertically and culminated in the establishment of the ultra-nationalist Nashi (Ours) youth movement.

Corruption and Bribery

Corruption, endemic to Russia under every regime, has received additional impetus during the recent period of the newly established free market. It is exercised primarily in two forms: Otkat (kickbacks) and inducement into a covert partnership.

Since the State retains partial ownership of numerous branches of heavy industry, mining, oil exploration and major construction projects (such as the forthcoming Winter Olympics), private and state sub-contractors are expected to return up to 50% of their bid price under the table as a precondition for winning. In a study of five potential worldwide sites for the Winter Olympics it was calculated that the price of a single seat in Sochi would be vastly more expensive than in any of the other countries because of the billions of dollars that would be wasted, stolen and wind up in the pockets of the loyalists and supporters of the regime.

This well-polished political-financial machine asserts control over many of the most profitable enterprises in Russia today. However, far beyond its direct involvement, it has reinforced and legit imized the general culture of bribery throughout the country. One of the most negative results is felt in higher education—bribes ensure the acceptance, high grades and graduation of the wealthy, leaving a wide body of students in unfair competition with them. It was incomprehensible to Russians that John F. Kennedy, Jr. could fail his NY bar exam three times.

In addition to direct bribery, inducement into covert partnerships also occurs via the system of Vertical Control. Instead of being under permanent threat of extortion by
illegal gangs, a business owner has the option to assign part of his enterprise to management by a straw man of the regime, who eliminates the fear of gang shakedowns and various state inspections (including fire, sanitation, taxation, etc.).


Co-opting writers and poets has been a characteristic of every regime in Russian history, including Tsarist Russia, Revolutionary Russia, and Soviet Russia. During the Soviet period, the most attentive reader was none other than Stalin himself, and writers were well aware of all the possible ramifications of such attention. Stalin punished outspoken critics, sending them to prison or assigning them to death lists, but he rewarded those who served him loyally and obeyed him blindly.
Eighty years ago, the talented poet Osip Mandelshtam wrote a shocking and accusatory poem against Stalin. Not only did he write it, he read it publicly on numerous occasions, as if goading Stalin to respond. The first eight lines are:

We live under him not feeling the country,
Our speech is not heard beyond ten steps,
Any half-whisper suffices
To trigger the ire of the mountain-man of the Kremlin.

His thick fingers, like worms, bold,
And words like heavy weights are correct,
A Cockroach laughs as his mustache,
And his boots shine ominously.

Stalin, however, instructed his henchmen not to kill Mandelshtam, but to keep him under tight control. Mandelshtam was later arrested and exiled, first to the hinterland and then to the Far East, where he eventually died from malnourishment and sickness.

Poets in Russian history have often played the role of non-official dissidents. Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1932), the elder of Russian poets, framed the relationship between a poet and the regime: “In Russia, a Poet is much more than a poet.” Defending the right to free expression, Yevtushenko recently upgraded this dictum:

There is no Truth in Russia
Without the Untruthful ones.

Putin, like Stalin, has decided to keep writers, authors and artists close to his camp. In November 2013, Putin participated for the first time in the Russian Literary Assembly of Poets and Writers, which represents numerous writers’ unions. Addressing this gathering from his part-time residence in the United States, Yevtushenko inveighed against politicization among contemporary authors, and called for the creation of a singular Writers’ Union to consolidate the numerous regional and ethnic unions. He implored, “It is high time
for authors to forego the old schisms and reunite in service to nation and civilization.”

Most impressive about the gathering wеre the seven names who signed the letter of invitation: Dostoyevsky, Lermontov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy and Sholokhov. No, this was not a mass resurrection of history’s most prominent Russian writers, but a meeting of their descendants (though Lermontov had neither children nor relatives). Never had such a prominent group of literary names gathered to discuss the resurrection of Russian national literature. Masha Gessen called it, “Putin’s Dead Poets’ Society.”

Putin’s body language on stage was more expressive than any speech; he sat in his chair, with a background of Pushkin’s enlarged manuscript pages, unmistakable as the mighty and controlling sovereign presiding over the court writers.

Disintegrating Quality of Life

During Russia’s civil war (1918-1922), nearly two million professionals, members of the intelligentsia, and practitioners of the arts and sciences left Russia, causing irreparable damage to society. A similar process with similarly catastrophic results is taking place today. What is striking in today’s Russia is that there is no civil war and citizens of the professional class can earn a sizable income, but the average person’s daily quality of life is too low for them to wish to remain in the mother country.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has earned over $1.5 trillion from the export of oil and gas, and built practically no new highways, but in the Far East, has built two bridges to a practically uninhabited island of 5,000 people at a cost of two billion dollars. In addition, Russia will spend $81 billion on a highway and railroad for the forthcoming Winter Olympics that will become unnecessary and obsolete immediately thereafter
This systemic and ongoing waste of financial resources contributes directly to the low quality of life endured by millions of average Russian citizens, to the growing emigration from Russia, and to the increasingly radicalization of Russia’s Muslim population.

Challenging the Constitution

Challenging the Russian Constitution is another way Putin’s government is attempting to fall more ideologically in line with regimes of the past. The present Constitution was signed in December 1993, and has served as the political framework for the governments of Yeltsin, Medvedev and Putin (both terms). Since its inception, the Constitution has undergone only one major change, to allow the President’s term in office to be extended from 4 to 6 years.

Putin’s current government, however, intends to implement several sweeping changes in 2015, including:

  • Rejection of any automatic acceptance of international norms and law as a part of the legal system of the Russian Federation.
  • Dismissal of the principles and norms of international law as a guarantor of rights and freedoms of persons and citizens of the Russian Federation

The Duma’s “Russian Sovereignty Caucus” has promoted these ideas with Putin’s blessing and support.

Another group has proposed inserting a clear paragraph regarding patriotism, claiming the present Constitution was created to support a transitional period in Russia, and thus today Russian patriotism should be included in the main document. These and additional constitutional issues, with their judicial and political complexities, will play an important role in shaping the future of Russian domestic and foreign politics.

Foreign Conflict

The age of Putin cannot be discussed without covering the essence of his approach to foreign politics and his positioning of Russia as a player in local and international conflicts. Today Russia’s is in conflict with most of its former western republics, excluding Belarus, as these republics seek closer ties with Europe. Friction and conflict over agricultural trade ave been escalated beyond their real value, and conflicts over energy transfer to Lithuania and Ukraine occur every few years.

The recent push for Ukraine to join the first stage of non-assured membership in the EU has also caused significant friction. Toward the end of the negotiation, Ukraine’s President Yanukovich suddenly decreed that Russia must participate in the discussion. He accepted Putin’s position that if Ukraine joined the EU and an open border was created, Russia would not agree to Ukrainian membership. That, not the demand for assured additional financial support from the EU, was the reason Yanukovich ultimately withheld his signature.

Russia and the United States

Russia’s relations with the United States during the last 13 years are clearly divided into two periods: President George W. Bush’s term in office, which concentrated mostly on cooperating with Russia on issues related to terrorism and ensuring regional strategic support for allied troops in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama’s term in office, which has focused on maintaining a peaceful alliance.

Bush’s initial strategy relating to Putin was akin to Margaret’s Thatcher statement about Gorbachev: “We can do business with him.” Bush’s style of placating Putin was sincere, if a bit awkward. Here he describes his impressions of Putin during their first meeting in Slovenia on June 16, 2001:

I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and its best interests, and I greatly appreciated our frank dialogue, which is the beginning of a very constructive relationship.

Much political hay was made of these remarks, but it surely appeased Putin and smoothed each president’s initial perception of the other.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Sergey Lavrov joined Putin’s Cabinet as Foreign Minister. This hyper-masculine pair judged the young American president to be a weak man with limited political experience, just as Khrushchev had judged President Kennedy. Indeed, President Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the opening of his first term, said he was elected to “end wars and not to start them.” Then Obama dramatically changed American policy toward Russia by announcing the “reset.” These acts reinforced Putin’s initial perception of Obama’s weakness, and his administration began to act upon that assessment.

It is inconceivable Russia would have played its Ukraine hand in the same risky and confrontational way had its assessment of President Obama been different.

Russia’s ascent to world prominence in the last five years, despite the simultaneous deterioration of its domestic policies, civil rights, and economic progress, has created enormous difficulties for its domestic opposition to gather the political might needed to challenge the present regime. Russian intelligentsia and writers have offered support to the 1.6
million Ukrainian protesters who gathered in the heart of Kiev to express their feeling of betrayal at being ignored by their president Yanukovich, and being subject to his whims when he caved in to Putin’s demands. They know that the idea of Ukraine joining the EU is good, but their Big Neighbor in Moscow trumped their wishes and supplications.

However, economic, financial and political constraints imposed by Putin’s regime of Vertical Control mean neither the existing political parties nor the liberal intelligentsia are able to reach a solid deal with the electorate. Fax machines made all the difference in Poland. Tapes smuggled into Iran by opponents of the Shah had a deep impact upon the people. These rudimentary mechanisms are nothing in comparison with the volume and penetration of the Internet, social networks, and email for disseminating liberal information and rousing support for change…and yet, Putin remains solidly in control of this vast territory and its inhabitants.

The relationship between capability and intention is familiar to every student of foreign policy. Gorbachev once said that if the price of oil had reached $35/bbl, he would have been able to save the Soviet system from internal collapse. Today, stability and the continuation of Putin’s regime rest on the price of oil as well. As long as the price does not dip below $75-80/bbl, Russia, a Third-World country with a low quality of life and high crime, will be able to continue operating as if it is a superpower. Putin has been able to retain a high
degree of popularity despite clear authoritarian policies of Vertical Control over the country.

Pushkin warned against riots because, “God forbid we should see Russian mutiny—it is senseless and merciless.” It seems that Russians, en masse, have not yet exercised the power of the ballot, and until they learn to do so, can hope for no help from any external power. And so, the pendulum of Russian history will continue to swing, holding us in perpetual suspense.

Ilya Levkov is President of Liberty Publishing in New York.


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