An elite openly contemptuous of the poor. Millions of people living in towns where traditional industries (and the measure of security they provided) have vanished. Spiralling addiction. A class of super wealthy oligarchs, much too close to the government, exercising way more power than they ought to. All major communications channels controlled by a tiny coterie of billionaires.
Sound familiar? Welcome to Russia in 1996, just after the re-election of President Boris Yeltsin, the onetime Soviet apparatchik turned champion of democracy, who then presided over the rapid immiseration of his nation on an epic scale.
It’s a little-understood period, not least because so many Western experts and institutions (many of them still going strong today) were complicit in the human tragedy that came about as a result of Yeltsin’s economic “shock therapy”. An expert class incurious about its own failures is a familiar enough phenomenon, of course, but there are other instructive parallels between Russia in 1996 and the US in 2021. And these parallels could, perhaps, give us a glance into what will become of the apparent corporate-media-political monolith that has ascended to power behind Biden.
There are important differences of course. When somebody in Russia starts panicking about dictatorship, they know a lot more about what it means than your typical American pundit angling for a book deal. And in 1996, many Russian liberals were worried that dictatorship was on the horizon. Yeltsin’s first term had been a failure, with millions thrown into poverty and a precipitous decline in life expectancy. As a result his opponent — one Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party — looked likely to win the election, which would have been bad news for business, as well as the values and ideals of Russia’s pro-Western liberals.
And so practically the entirety of Russia’s business, media and liberal elite rallied around Yeltsin to support his re-election. Remarkably, this was despite the fact that Yeltsin himself had, only a few years earlier, ordered an attack on Russia’s parliament when it kept blocking his executive orders. Unlike Trump’s fiasco, this incident ended not with a mob in fancy dress storming the building but rather 147 people losing their lives after an assault by tanks and helicopters.
So Yeltsin was pretty unconvincing as a champion of democracy (even if Clinton’s secretary of state praised him for his “superb handling” of the parliament). But the prospect of Zyuganov was regarded as still worse, providing Russia’s “liberal” forces with a “moral clarity”: a conviction that they had to bend and break all rules and norms to prevent him from being elected. Like America’s establishment in 2021, Russia’s elites in 1996 had no time for journalistic objectivity or “both sidesism”. The future of the nation itself was at stake.
There was no social media back then, but television had enormous influence, and the three main channels railed against Zyuganov and his communists. Of those three, one was owned 100% by the state, while the other two were controlled by oligarchs. Boris Berezovsky — later to enjoy some notoriety as a foe of Putin living in exile in England — ran ORT, while a stage director-turned-banker by the name of Vladimir Gusinsky ran NTV. Certainly Zyuganov posed a direct threat to their business interests — but they may also have entertained the notion that they were fighting for liberal democracy, and that this was far bigger than their rivalry.
As a result, Zyuganov had it considerably worse than Trump. Bar the likes of Pravda, he had very few allies in the media. ORT and NTV filled the airwaves with hagiographies of Yeltsin and documentaries on the horrors of communism. The editor of the news magazine Itogi declared, “This is not a game with equal stakes,” adding that he was “willing to be unfair” and “willing to stir up a wild anti-Communist psychosis among the people”. The general director of NTV openly took a job on Yeltsin’s campaign team.
Perhaps no American journalist was quite so honest as to take a job directly on Biden’s campaign team, but The Washington Post did retroactively edit an article that cast Kamala Harris in an unflattering light, and the LA Times has launched an ongoing series of fawning coverage of the Vice President. So it might be slightly less irritating if significant parts of the American media did openly declare what they’re up to, instead of trying to disguise it as “journalism”.
But perhaps the most interesting parallel is that Zyuganov was not only denied any kind of favourable media coverage; he was denied access even to the communications infrastructure. When the communists tried to buy advertising on state TV, their money was turned down. At least Twitter and Facebook waited until Trump was on the way out before they switched him off. But they did still eject the actual President of the US from access to social media, whereas the bosses of Russian TV were merely excluding an opposition candidate from the airwaves. The reasoning was similar: both men were too dangerous to be granted access to a channel by which they could communicate directly with their supporters.
Yeltsin, of course, won, and the oligarchs and media barons who had supported him wound up closer to the government, wealthier and more powerful than before, while preserving — for the time being — their own status quo. And if life were a movie, that would have been a great time to roll credits, with the commies defeated and all the rich people getting to keep their money and influence.
But life carried on, and it’s the next act that’s perhaps the most instructive for us. The underlying problems that had made Zyuganov popular in the first place did not go away. Russia’s economic woes deepened. The overt collusion between the media, the oligarchs and Yeltsin — combined with disappointment in an aging President who was increasingly decrepit and erratic — led to further degradation of trust in the media and Russia’s governing institutions; democracy itself was rechristened dermokratiya — “shitocracy”.
And then, four years later, an ex-KGB officer by the name of Vladimir Putin came to power. A more effective authoritarian than Zyuganov, he swiftly chased Berezovsky out of the country and stripped Gusinsky of his TV station. Having been part of the Yeltsin regime himself, he understood what many members of America’s current ruling class appear not to — that any weapon you deploy against a foe can also be turned against you.
And so we turn from Russia to the US in 2021. Again, if life were a movie, then the recent inauguration would have been a great moment to roll credits — perhaps as Lady Gaga was singing the national anthem, while a tear trickled down Stephen Colbert’s cheek. But life has already moved on.
A recent poll reveals that trust in traditional media has dropped below 50% for the first time ever, while trust in social media sits at a mighty 27%. Many Americans, like the Russians before them, are adjusting to the default assumption that at best they are not receiving the full picture. At least Russian journalists lacked the comical levels of self-regard of their US counterparts.
Nor are other institutions doing that well on the trust front, even — or perhaps especially — as they all espouse the same package of received ideas. And once the relief that Trump has gone has passed, what will become of Biden? Unlike Yeltsin, he may not disappear for days on alcoholic benders, but it is fair to say that he has not, for much of his very long career, inspired a lot of confidence. As Obama himself is reported to have said: “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to fuck things up.”
Now I don’t think that Biden will flame out to the extent that Yeltsin did, with the result that a sinister Putin-type rough beast shall slouch forward, to be born in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But I do think that this apparent corporate-media-institutional monolith is unlikely to endure — despite the persistent belief among some American political fantasists that each victory is their chance to exercise eternal hegemony over their enemies.
For instance, when the billionaires behind Twitter and Facebook ejected Trump from Twitter — and, under pressure from the Democrats, began censoring all kinds of opinions of which they disapproved — they crossed a Rubicon. Once the Republicans have stopped rolling around in their own mess, they will realise that large monopolies controlled by people who are closely allied with your opposition and who wield the power to switch you off at will are not a thing to be tolerated. Alexei Navlany agrees, as do Angela Merkel and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, and we can assume that many other leaders around the world sat up and took notice, too. Some kind of rebalancing will happen, and that is not a bad thing.
While we should never underestimate the resilience of Zombie Reaganism, it, too, must eventually lose its grip on the brains of the Republicans, whose leadership is likewise very old, if not quite so old as that of the Democrats. They will realise that the market does not always correct itself, and that something will have to be done. The American context will provide its own tools for change. A new interpretation of the First Amendment, perhaps. Or a redefinition of the public square. Or the application of antitrust law to certain platforms. Or a re-examination of CDA 230 — the legislation that allows tech oligarchs to have their cake and eat it by granting them immunity from liability for what users post on their platforms, while also reserving for them the right to censor or withdraw services from users if they dislike what they post on their platforms.
If that sounds like wishful thinking, then remember that far more radical political evolutions have happened. After all, today’s Democrats may be closely allied with woke tech oligarchs, but they used to be rather friendly with the KKK, an organisation with a history of violence far worse than any of those currently being purged from social media platforms.