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How Putin subverts the past to seal his future Authoritarianism has a strong hold on the Russian psyche, fuelled by myths of a glorious history

Moscow celebrates the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Credit: Host photo agency / RIA Novosti via Getty

Moscow celebrates the 70th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Credit: Host photo agency / RIA Novosti via Getty

April 7, 2020   7 mins

Leaders in authoritarian states seek to make up for citizens’ lack of ability to choose or reject them by demonstrating a passionate care for their wellbeing, through ensuring the stability of their country — stressing that their continued rule is essential to ensure it. Xi Jinping is president for life of the world’s most populous state. Recep Taip Erdogan has overseen constitutional changes to the power and length of service of the president, which could keep him in power in Turkey  till 2028, when he will be 74 (though, unlike Xi, he will — for the present at least — have to submit himself to re-election).

Donald Trump is now in a re-election year; if he loses, as seems likely, to Joe Biden, it’s a fair bet he’ll furiously tweet that it’s a fix. But the US is not an authoritarian state, and  legal process,  civil society and journalism are likely to win out.

They are not in Russia. Earlier this year, the country’s highest court approved constitutional changes in what the New York Times’s Andrew Higgins described as a “highly-choreographed display of political theatre” — allowing Vladimir Putin to stay on as President till 2036, when he will be 83.

In a speech, Putin argued that “stability and calm development of the country” was presently essential; and that the absence of “stable political parties” meant a strong presidency was also required. He has posed — and the main media channels support the pose — as one who had been surprised by the decision of his party, United Russia, to propose the new term limits and have these passed by the Duma. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, when pressed to take the crown, he protests he is “not fit for state and majesty” but in the end, will summon up “patience to endure the load”.

The constitutional change is remarkable for the cynicism in the assumption that fixing the constitution for the sake of Putin and his circle would pass without much opposition. According to the political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann, quoted in The Economist, the enriched Kremlin elite were “feeling nervous about their own future” if he were to leave office. The fragile shoots of democratic rule and the already-stunted growth of civil society have been stamped on hard — if not, hopefully, obliterated. Does it show that Russia cannot escape its authoritarian past? That depends to a large extent on the people: and history has not been kind to them as proactive agents of democracy, in the eyes of both foreign and Russian observers.

The historian Richard Pipes produced histories of the Russian revolution which pointed to popular support for despotism — that the Russian people preferred, or at least were used to, autocracy: “the Bolsheviks had no choice but to govern autocratically… (which) meant ruling the people in a manner to which they had been accustomed”. Observers through the ages have tended to Pipes’s view: the French Marquis de Custine, who travelled to Russia as a hopeful fan in the late 1830s, turned into a savage critic, calling the country, in his Letters from Russia (1843) “a prison without leisure”. He quotes the then Tsar, Nicholas I, as telling him that despotism “is the essence of my government, but it accords with the genius of the nation”.

In a recent book, Putin’s World, Angela Stent wrote that Putin’s “new Russian Idea… resembles the old Russian Idea… western concepts of individualism are alien to the more holistic, organic, communal Russian values.” Polls show that Putin’s popularity has declined in the past few years, but not that of the old Soviet Union: a poll by Pew last October showed over 60% regretted its passing, with its image of national strength and social equality. The sentiment is highest among the elderly: but 50% of the 18-34-year-olds agree, though few would have more than a hazy memory of it.

Soviet rule was not tsarist rule: the communists  may have copied and intensified Tsarist governance, but ruled differently, much more complete in their  oppression, aided by technology not available to the tsars. Yet rule of both, and now, has been ever at the service of the concept of a Russian mission, of a Russian “soul”, as if there were an essence of Russian-ness which, at its core, is unchanging. What has not changed is that it is ever, with only brief exceptions, at the service of an autocrat. Thus much history, in Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, is not so much about a fact-based narrative that may be debated and corrected, but about a mythic realm called “the past” — as the rulers, and often a large part of the people, wish it to be experienced.

In 2013, when a new set of history textbooks was commissioned, the then Culture Minister, Vladimir Medinsky, argued that “in historical mythology [facts] do not mean anything at all… everything begins not with facts but with interpretations… if you like your motherland, your people, your history, what you’ll be writing will always be positive.” Christopher Coker, who quotes Medinsky, writes (in The Rise of the Civilizational State) that “myths are usually immune to factual rebuttal…they tend to operate at a deeper level of consciousness in their claim to communicate a more immediate, metaphysical truth”. For many in Russia today, a deeper level of consciousness is picturing the Stalinist era as one in which Russia was greater and its society better.

A wave of pro-Stalinism grows. Last April, a poll by the still independent Levada Centre found an extraordinary 70% of respondents who viewed his role as “positive” — up from 54% in 2018. This, as statues of Stalin are being erected.

A journalist from Volgograd told a recent conference of Russian journalists I attended in January that  groups of his fellow citizens are demanding their city be revert to its previous name of Stalingrad. In doing so, consciously or not, they touched the important part of Stalin’s legacy — bequeathing to his heirs a narrative, not in itself a myth, of the containment of a ferocious German assault from June 1941  until the tide was turned in early 1943, with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad on the Volga, after which the Red Army began to take the offensive. Stalingrad was the war’s furnace, and Europe’s most important saviour: it is a legitmate source of pride — and  in the absence of an official ideology, it is the strongest link between the people and the rulers.

In his Return of the Russian  Leviathan, the Russian historian Sergei Medvedev writes that Putin’s Kremlin depends heavily on “the cult of Victory Day, May 9” — the day the “Great Patriotic War” ended, with Soviet reputation as its height. He says that to celebrate that date is “easier and less contentious than celebrating the Soviet Union — a colonial empire which (in different forms) lasted 500 years. Memory of it as it has ended becomes a zone of conflict”. The Great Patriotic War, by contrast, is unalloyed heroism, coupled with the saving of Europe from Nazism.

The elevation of the War masks the large gap where a reckoning with Russia’s own Soviet, and post Soviet, past should be — but is markedly absent, or glossed over in history text books and most Soviet accounts.

The Russian-born British journalist Arkady Ostrovsky, in his Invention of Russia, addressing the question of who was to blame for the past and its suppression, answers — almost everyone, save for a few heroes, as the physicist Andrei Sakharov in the late Soviet period, and the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, murdered near the Kremlin in 2015.

Ostrovsky writes that no-one, not even President Putin, is uniquely to blame, since he is “as much a consequence as a cause of Russia’s ills.” He governs corruptly, and now seems determined to stay at the apex of power by whatever means; yet he also restored order and a sense of greatness to Russia. He has kept some of  the unprecedented freedoms of the Boris Yeltsin decade, such as travel, relatively free speech, internet use, while, Ostrovsky writes,  “all the Kremlin asked in return was for people to mind their own business and stay out of politics — something they gladly did(my italics).”

Putin has, however, been busy in suppressing the institutions of civil society — above all, the NGOs whose work takes them into issues of politics and society, and whose needs demand that they seek foreign funding. One of the NGOs labelled as a “foreign agent” under a 2012 law which places severe restrictions on their work was the central office of Memorial — brought into existence in the Gorbachev period to bear witness to those killed in the purges and repressions of the Stalin era. The Justice Ministry accused Memorial of “undermining the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation”. More than any other organisation, Memorial set out to end the silence over Stalinism: it has not itself been silenced, but it has been curbed.

There are some memorials to the mass killings of the Stalin era: but minimal. One site, in Moscow, is a field near the Butovo Metro, where, in the great purges of the thirties over 20,000 people — many of these priests — were shot, a process which went on so long that the executioners became victims of Stalin’s all consuming paranoia, and were themselves shot. The Orthodox Church, rather than the state, has built a church there: when Putin came to speak, he talked only  of “excesses of the [Stalin] administration”. “The causes of the trauma have not been addressed, as they have in Germany,” says Medvedev. “And we must remember that  this is not wholly the fault of the Kremlin. The refusal to examine often comes from the grass roots.”

What can be done about the poor quality of historical education? If propaganda is pumped out and believed, and — as a Levada poll had shown — only 15% of Russians think critically about what they are told, how can a sane view of history emerge?

Yet Russia is authoritarian, not wholly despotic. Maxim Trudalubov, one of Russia’s sharpest commentators, wrote in the New York Times that “the Russian regime is slowly turning into a more rule-based governance system… today’s Russians seem to be less and less impressed by the show of strongman leadership at home and Russia’s military might abroad. A demand to be acknowledged as dignified citizens, not obedient subjects, is palpable in numerous protest movements that are ready to stand up to government and police pressure”.

If this continues to be so, then the demand for a less opaque history and a Kremlin that gives less of a free pass to Stalinism may, bit by bit, be the result. Some signs are there. Museums detailing the horrors of the Gulag are being founded. In Siberian Krasnoyarsk, an experiment in deliberative democracy is underway, picking up on the work of the Stanford scholar James Fishkin, who brings people of radically differing views together, supplying neutral, objective (as far possible) information on the issues which divide them and seeking to chip away at prejudices. These are examples, which can be multiplied: they can also be snuffed out, as Xi Jinping in China put an end to the limited freedom journalism has enjoyed for a few years before his taking power as President in 2013.

Yet Russia is not China. Most of its population live in European Russia, west of the Urals. President Emmanuel Macron, now reaching out to Russia, believes, as he told The Economist last October, that “I don’t see how, in the long term, [Putin’s] project can be anything other than a partnership project with Europe”. If that were so, the issues presently obscured by the Kremlin — history prominent among them — would be up for a more open examination. “We are not, “says Medvedev, “going back to Stalinism” — adding, however, that at present there is nothing else.

The future may make a break with Richard Pipes’s view that Russia is fated to repeat the past, and that could help the present. But it will need to separate facts from the myths: a process likely to be both painful, and contested.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.

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D Alsop
D Alsop
4 years ago

I cant see trump losing to Biden, if anything i think it’ll be an easier win for him then against Hillary. Biden can barely string a sentence together, get those 2 in the debates and Trump is going to eat him alive. The Democrats have chosen the wrong candidate yet again and will spend the next 5 years calling everyone racist and blaming Russians without realizing their own mistakes

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago

Surely tests also record “false positives”.
If the test has shown no false positives, then if you are tested and it shows you have antibodies (ie you have had it before or been born with them somehow) then you have antibodies. And you have antibodies then you have as much chance of getting the disease as being vaccinated against it.
And if vaccination is the best protection we have, then you are as clear as we can make it.


Peter Coomber
Peter Coomber
4 years ago

This is certainly an interesting article. It may seem’ likely’ to John Lloyd that Donald Trump will lose the presidential election. At the time this piece was posted every single bookmaker on oddschecker.com (there are more than 20) has Donald Trump as favourite for the contest. Assuming for the sake of simplicity that there are only two relevant runners, in broad terms, bookmakers price a Trump win at 55% and a Biden victory at 45%.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

This is a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, analysis. However, did the great Richard Pipes really believe that Russia was fated to repeat the past? In “Russia under the Bolshevik Regime” he seemed to suggest something quite different, which should inspire people anywhere living under any authoritarian or totalitarian regime: “As experience has confirmed time and again, man is not an inanimate object but a creature with his own aspirations and will _ not a mechanical but a biological entity. Even if subjected to the fiercest dressage, he cannot pass on the lessons he has learned to his children, who come into this world ever fresh, asking questions that are supposed to have been settled once and for all.”